The Being of Doing

Silver maple flowersThis morning I had a large load of laundry to hang up.  I found myself rushing to get it finished, hurrying to complete the task because I had another task to complete or maybe just because I wanted to get back to my cup of coffee.   The point was that I was going to spend twenty minutes hanging laundry and I could do it with my mind in the next task or in irritation or in feeling rushed, or I could hang laundry and practice being present to myself as I did it.  So I decided to take this task moment by moment, and try to see when I was derailing and when I might actually be in the present.  Hanging laundry doesn’t take a lot of attention and I can attach many memories and thoughts to it, so it was a bit of effort to stay present.  In fact, I was thinking I’d write a blog post about hanging laundry and that was yet another way I escaped the present moment!  Ahh, the monkey mind can be a clever fellow.

The most potent sensory moment was in snapping out my cotton flannel pajama pants and tossing them over the line, feeling the cold wetness on my hands and the dryness of my skin, smelling the damp cotton and the briefest sense of the enjoyment of the future of pulling on clean pajamas….maybe that was a memory and not a projection, but in any case, it was being present to my own inner experience as well as what was coming in from my senses.   I might have enjoyed more spending that twenty minutes sitting on my meditation cushion in silence, but I still would have needed to hang the laundry, and so I am choosing to see that as part of today’s practice.  How can I BE when I am still doing?   This is one way.

Be-ing is something that I can access all the time.   When I am deeply into thinking or remembering or reacting or otherwise unaware of myself, I can stop, notice my sensory experience, take stock of myself (“what do I notice in my body NOW?”) and connect once again to the ground of Be-ing.  I don’t need silence, my cushion, or even a quiet space, although they certainly can help.  But I am “being” all the time, even when I am not able to notice it.

How do you find yourself in the midst of a lot of doing?

Silver maple buds in march

I want it my way or, the REAL cure for stress

Everything in my life would be so simple if only everyone did exactly what I want them to do all the time. In fact, that’s so obvious that I can’t really believe I have never said it before.  If you people would just do things the way I want them done, then I wouldn’t have all this stress.

Why can’t you conform to MY expectations?  Why won’t you give up your own needs, desires, and wants in order to  meet mine?   If you won’t do that, then LIFE IS NOT FAIR.

And you know what that means……I’ll have to be all stressed out about life not being fair.

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It isn’t really just people, though.  I want the DOG to do what I want.  And I really, REALLY want the weather to do things the way that I prefer them.  Like I’ve really just about HAD IT with the snow. We are in the middle of yet another blizzard (can I stand to write another blizzard post?) and I want it to JUST STOP.  STOP IT!!!

And that’s where the whole house of cards breaks down.  Becomes pretty funny, actually, when the absurdity is revealed.

I can rail at the weather all I want but it isn’t going to have any effect.  The weather is what it is. I can rail about the dog, too, and I could even do something to separate myself from him or train him to behave differently, but my major complaint is shedding and neither he nor I have any control over that.

We often live in a illusory world where we believe that we should be able to control other people.  We want to control not only how they behave, but often (and more insidiously) how they think and feel.   We want them to LIKE us, or think kindly toward us, or treat us with respect.  We get stressed in our attempts to manage other people’s thoughts about us and their behaviour toward us.  We think we know what’s going on inside other people, we think we can foretell the future based on what we think THEY think, and we think that there is something we can do about it.

??????????

Yes, that’s living in illusion.   A whole whack of layers of illusion.  Imagine the fabric that is called illusion….wedding dress stuff, layers and layers of tulle-like poufyness.  Then imagine what it would be like to have your hold on reality swathed in layers and layers of illusion:  not being able to find the ground, or find what is real….yes, that would be stressful!  Sometime we believe that the solution to the stress is for the other person to just Just Shape Up.  In other words, do what I want you to do, and do it now.  Then I won’t have to be all stressed.

If we look at the weather, the absurdity becomes obvious. If only the weather would cooperate, I wouldn’t have to suffer.  Not true! Suffering is a result of believing that I shouldn’t be inconvenienced. If the weather were perfect, I’d find something else to suffer (be stressed) about.  And I can’t change the weather anyway.  There’s got to be a better answer than that!

There is a better answer, one that actually works. The truth is that our thinking is wrong on two counts.   First, our stress is not a result of other people’s behaviour (or even the weather).  The stress comes from fighting with illusion….fighting imaginary tigers, if you will.  And the second wrong-thinking part is the idea that the cure for my upset (stress) is for the other person (or dog, or the weather) to conform to my expectations.  After all, I shouldn’t be inconvenienced if I haven’t agreed to it. That is not fair.  And that’s a thought a lot of us share.

The cure for stress is to get out of illusion, including the illusions that life contains no inconvenience and that life is fair. Imagine beating your way through the layers and layers of gossamer fabric, wrapped oh so gently around you, encompassing and wrapping you and keeping you in suffering.  The hardest part is to really allow yourself to wonder if you are in illusion. This is actually an empirical question.  It is testable.  You can ask yourself the question…”What do I know?”   And sit with that. What do you really KNOW right here and now? What do I know as opposed to what do I think, believe, or feel to be true?

I start with the things that are incontrovertible.  I know that I am breathing, for example.  I can feel it.  I can stop and notice my breathing.  Yes, I am certain that I am breathing.  Am I alive in my body?   Can I feel my feet on the floor?  Press them right into the floor and feel them there?  Yes.  I am breathing and I can I feel my body, beginning with my feet. So now I know that I am alive, a living organism, having an experience.   What else can I notice?

Then coming back to the upset at hand….what do I KNOW?   What have I seen, heard, observed?   Can I separate that from what I think I know about what I have seen, heard and observed?  For example, can I notice someone’s behaviour without engaging my beliefs about it?  Without the script or storyline? Can I just see what IS without all the layers of how it Should Be or or How I Want It To Be, or How Other People Might Think About It?

It is simple.   But it isn’t easy.  When I ask myself, what do I want to happen in this situation, I can see if I want to control something (or someone) else.  When I ask, what do I really know about this?, then I can better see what my own illusions are contributing

What do I KNOW right here in this moment?  Right here and now, can I separate my moment-to-moment experience from my thoughts, beliefs, plans, memories, concepts, and ideas?  Can I see what is mine and what is someone else’s?  Can I allow other people the same opportunity to be themselves that I want to have in my own life?  And when that becomes possible, what do I notice about my own suffering, or my own stress?

Freedom from illusion isn’t freedom from pain.  But it sure can minimize the suffering.

What does fall evoke in you?

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This week has had warm, humid and sometimes rainy weather as a result of a late season hurricane out there in the Atlantic. That means diffuse light, brightly coloured leaves glossy and wet, and today, a gray morning of fog (mourning?). Grass is still green, leaves are drifting over lawns, and the tang of wood smoke would not be a surprise. Yet fall still feels gentle, moving in quietly but with purpose. There is some sense of movement in fall, though I know that the movement is toward winter.  But I notice in myself that I also feel movement, a shift toward maybe incubating something, a new project, new ideas, or maybe (more subtly) just a change in point of view.  Below are some views from my morning with Max.

 

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After Almost-Hurricane Arthur

Pine tree again

Pedaling through the aromascape I am assaulted, again and again,

barely time to register the sense impression before the next one arrives.

(I pedal smoothly down the path meeting wave after wave of fragrance,each carrying its own set of images, memories, concepts)

Full autumnal tang of crushed poplar leaves generate a golden afternoon and the dear one who was there.  Superimposed is another face, radiant in the yellow light, images from ten, twenty, forty years ago as immediate as the present.

Then the nearly-acrid tang of pine gone badly wrong, the blowdown’s massive trunk is rent, torn asunder and bleeding its sticky fragrance into the warm summer air   (Ghosts of Christmas past, brown needle-carpeted playhouses, wide boards freshly sanded in an ancient keeping room)

Pedaling on, the thickly fragranced atmosphere bears down, intense and pressing in the hot sun

Red clover, crushed tansy, heavy floweryness of milkweed calls insects and birds and me  (six years old, gripping my milkweed pod between my fingers, a green and silent canary)

A brief hint of woodsmoke evokes a hundred campfires

The smell of water arrives before the plashing and tumbling, brown water rich with mud and decay and humus, scents of fecundity and death,  life and that which feeds life all at once

And I stand to pedal, exulting in the effort, the ache in my calves, the pounding of my heart, the heaving of my chest (body remembering childhood, climbing the hills in my hometown)

fully here, fully alive

 

Wildflowers after Arthur

Traveling through time

We cannot return to the past; we can only go forward.

I had that thought this morning, pondering my life, my career, my current state.  But I think it is likely that both parts of that thought are untrue.

We can go back and we can go forward, always and sometimes obsessively, in our minds.  We do a lot of both.    Sometimes I spend a lot of time in one place or the other, and sometimes just waffling in between.  Remembering, for example, my mother’s death, or then her life, and wondering how much of my memories of her are based on “reality” of actual events in the world, and how much based on the reality of my child’s experience.  And then flipping into some future where I have written about my life, and made sense of it all.  And then flopping to another new future where I leave therapy as a career and do nothing, nothing at all.  Or write, but somehow make a living at writing.   Or reshape my therapy practice so I focus on groups and have more free time, or then I wonder if I don’t really embrace some idea I have for work, well, then, will I die feeling incomplete???

The point is that I am returning to the past over and over.  I am slipping into the future again and again.  And when I spend my days in those places I miss being alive.  I miss what is actually going on.

Where can I find a balance so that I am living my life here and now, and also creating a future that conforms to my desires?   Oh, that’s a point….all of this time travel is usually about control.  It is about my desire to control my future and my rage that I could not control my past.  Aha, yes, indeed.

I wonder if acknowledging that I want to CONTROL my future will help me let go of that deep desire.   Actually, I don’t really want to control the future….I just want the outcomes to be the outcomes I want.   It reminds me somehow of the prayers I was taught as a child.   I was taught to ask God to bless parents, friends, the dog, and to keep everyone safe and happy.   Somehow I believed that my supplication would protect people and keep outcomes the way I wanted them.  That’s a pretty long history of wanting to control how things work out.

Maybe all I can do right now is try to limit my time traveling.   Here and now can be a pretty good place.  It can also be boring, sad, angry, irritable and cold.  But the more time I spend in the present, the more life I am getting in my life.   I guess I’ll try for that.

The illusion of control

How do I end up in these places?  That’s not just a whine about winter, but a bigger question, really.   It seems to me that I could not have predicted my current circumstances from my earlier life.  I think that a lot of strange, unpredictable things had to happen for me to be here, now, doing what I am doing.

I often wonder if there is any truth to my sense that I have made choices, decisions, which resulted in my arriving here in this place, in this work, in this country, within my particular family structure.

Did I actually have anything at all to do with that?

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There are times when I think that maybe choice is illusory and that we operate on another scale.  We are mere mites within a grander structure.   We run around, choosing one path or another, feeling stressed about what to choose, but we cannot see that the choices are limited by the maze into which we were born.   We think we are choosing from all the available options but maybe our very choices are constrained by our pre-existing beliefs, our social structures, or needs for acceptance within our tribes.  Those constraints are largely invisible to us as we make our day-to-day decisions.   Eggs or pancakes?   Divorced or married?  Employed or not?   House or condo?   It is not obvious that there are many other options than just the either-or within our cultural and social limits.

What are the limits?  What keeps us inside the maze rather than climbing up the walls and getting a look at what else is there?

credit Wikipedia
credit Wikipedia

I suspect that partly it is our illusion of control.  We feel a need to hold onto that, even though life has a way of reminding us regularly that we don’t actually control very much.   If we should climb up the walls of the maze just to look out and across the sweep of those tunnels of our options and maybe the related but disconnected mazes of people from other places, cultures, social settings, we would have to acknowledge that truth…control is just an illusion.   That’s a frightening idea.  We want someone to be in control.  Some of us want to be in control of ourselves.  Some of us are willing to relinquish control to a beneficent deity.  Some of us believe that we are controlled by malevolent forces, from government-corporate conspiracy to the devil.   Some people prefer to believe that we are controlled by natural forces, such as evolution, or climate change.   After all, we figure, SOMEONE must have set up those mazes.

What if none of it is true?  What if our limits are our own conceptual construction, just as our control is our own conceptual construction?  What would happen if we dropped all the stories, all the self-talk about us and others, about limits, about control, about events?   I suspect we’d be left with experience, our moment-to-moment experiencing of being a human organism living a human life.

Found APOD, credit http://www.thorri.is/ Fabulous photos at this site
Found APOD, credit http://www.thorri.is/
Fabulous photos at this site

I’m going to ponder this for awhile.  Who am I when I drop the storyline?   When I really drop it, that question also disappears.   The “I” of my story is gone and what is left is just the experiencer, experiencing.   I get there sometimes, moments during sitting and other moments too, but as soon as I notice then I am back in the story, back in my maze.  But I wonder, and this is part of the story too, if I can melt away the “me” of my story, can I melt away the limits of my maze?  What is it like to just BE, without putting that moment into the context of my day, my week, my maze?

 

What’s wrong with positive thinking?

Positive thinking is fine.  There is nothing inherently bad about it.   Usually when people refer to thinking positively, they are actually experiencing unpleasant thoughts….thoughts that might create imaginary catastrophes, thoughts of criticism or judgment, or just overt pessimism.   Those thoughts generally don’t lead to better outcomes, so people want to change them.  And that’s okay.

mountain-aven

If all it took to recover from traumatic stress was positive thinking, we’d probably all be just fine.  And therapists like me might have a lot less to do at work.

There is a lot that happens in our thinking.  And there is also a lot that happens in our minds apart from our conscious, word-based thoughts.   That’s where the over-simplification of “positive thinking” starts to fall apart.

What else is in there?   If you sit, quieting your body and breathing and just noticing your mental activity for a period of time, you’ll become aware of the constant overlapping parade of ideas, words, memories, anticipations, and images that are flowing through your conscious mind.   Then you might be able to start to notice the spaces:   can you find space between the discrete items in that steady parade?  Then, over time and practice, you might notice specific types of items in your continuous mental flow, or you might focus on paying more attention to the empty space, allowing stillness to come into your mind as well as in your body.

This practice helps us to become more acquainted with the contents of our minds, and helps us to access some things that we may have been avoiding or simply not noticing in the chaos of the untrained mind.

The danger of “positive thinking” is that we might use it to avoid looking deeply into ourselves, to pack away uncomfortable feelings and memories, to try to keep ourselves from feeling sad, for example, or angry or afraid.   While there is certainly some short-term utility to that approach, in the longer term we end up cutting off parts of ourselves.

Wow, that sounds brutal!  But what might it actually look and feel like, to have cut off parts of yourself?   Well, one example might be that you have very poor memory for parts of your life.    Or you may only experience a very restricted range of feelings:  you feel happy, sad, angry or afraid, but only a little bit and you wonder what all the fuss is about, when other people seem to experience their feelings more powerfully.  Or you just feel slightly anxious much of the time, with no apparent reason.  Perhaps you everything in your life looks just fine from the outside, but you feel like something is missing….but it is embarrassing to say that because your life is “just fine.”   These are all possible indications that you are out of contact with parts of yourself.

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Looking deeply into ourselves, staying with the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise, can be an act of great courage.   Really experiencing our experiences, whether we label them “good” or “bad,”  “positive” or “negative,” or (my preferred label) “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” allows us to find the hidden parts and embrace them.  

Positive thinking isn’t bad, especially if you are trying to change a pattern of catastrophizing, what iffing, or shoulds.    Using it to numb us to our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can keep us stuck in our old patterns, though.  Be aware of what you most want to avoid…there is usually something of value there!

Happy Spring!

 

Power of perception

Yesterday I posted a little note and a photo of a tree in the woods.  I commented that the tree was decorated in Mardi Gras colours, purple, green, and gold.  That’s exactly what I saw yesterday in the woods.

You might have noticed, as I have, that the picture I posted tells a slightly different story.   In the  picture, the decorations are not limited in colour, but include other colours as well.  And a friend noted that she had seen that tree before in the park, quite a while before Mardi Gras.

Hmm…..this has me pondering and amused, actually, at the influence of my thoughts.   Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day important in my childhood for religious reasons and the beginning of Lent.  I recall many years of the supreme sacrifice of giving up eating candy for the interminable six weeks before Easter.  This was for some abstract reason that was going to help Jesus, somehow, even though he was still going to be crucified whether I was compliant or not.   In my adult life, Lent marked the end of the Mardi Gras season, which started at Epiphany and was marked by delightful and delicious King Cake, a soggy sweet coffee cake that boasted purple, green and gold coloured sugars, and a plastic baby hidden somewhere for you to break a tooth on.

But yesterday in the woods I was primed to see a Mardi Gras tree, not a Christmas tree.

I had been thinking about Shrove Tuesday, and about my nephew Vic’s birthday, and the particular birthday when Vic turned twelve at our house in Louisiana. The birthday fell on Tuesday, Fat Tuesday. So we celebrated by heading off to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Vic decided that the party was for him and we all agreed.

With pancakes and king cakes in my mind, how could I avoid turning that tree into a Mardi Gras symbol? But I was wrong. The power of perception was so strong, so insistent, that I came home and posted a picture claiming what I had seen. Only now I know it’s just what I thought I had seen.

Thoughts can be powerful and persuasive. I wonder where else I have experienced a sort of perception-blindness?

Music moves me….and probably you, too.

2013-06-02 14.03.11Music has power in our bodies, to the degree to which we permit it.

This is obvious but so much a part of everyday life that I suspect we ignore it.  We certainly don’t use it to our best advantage.  In fact, it may be used to influence our behaviour without our awareness.   Have you ever noticed the background music in restaurants or grocery stores?  You might wonder, actually, why on earth anyone bothers to have music in the grocery store.  But it is for a very clear reason:  people’s behavioural tempos are affected by the music in the background, even, or maybe especially, when you are not fully aware of what you are hearing.

I play music in my waiting room, and it is a particular, carefully chosen type of music.   I choose relaxing, non-challenging music for that space.  I don’t want music that is too hard to listen to, so I don’t include jazz or (much) classical music, because most people don’t feel comfortable with that music. And because the trajectory lines in that music are long…that is, in order to feel the whole pattern, you have to listen for several minutes, and that’s not always available in the waiting room.  Even with that, I don’t put Top 40 pop on my playlist because going to the therapist is NOT like going to the mall.  It is not a casual, no-big-deal sort of experience.   I look for fairly attractive, innocuous, relaxing music without obvious repetitive patterns.  In other words, New Age music which is often actually marketed for relaxation or to accompany massage, Reiki, or other calming modalities.

All of this actually is peripheral to my point, which I promise to get to…..we are affected, sometimes quite deeply, by the music and sounds around us, but we are often not mindful of these effects.  When you tune in to what you are hearing, you become part of the moment, part of what is going on.   You get to experience your own experience!   In a very clear way, you see yourself responding to the music, which otherwise you might consider background.  But background becomes foreground when we take a moment, breathe, listen, and feel.

This question of how music affects you can be an entire area for self-inquiry.   What kinds of music do you find energizing?   Enlivening? Relaxing and soothing?  What challenges you to pay attention?  What do you notice about yourself when you are challenged that way?    And of course, music will tap into memory systems.  So you might notice that songs from your youth generate some feelings that are like you might have felt years ago.   How can you put those bits together?

As you begin this practice, you may begin also to understand how you might have been triggered into a different mood state in the past.   Perhaps you came home from the store feeling really wonderful, bright, cheerful, alive….maybe you heard a song on the “background music” that reminded you of a wonderful memory.   Or perhaps you suddenly develop a dark, somber mood….what have you just been hearing?

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JS Bach, thanks to: (http://www.8notes.com250px-JSBach.jpg)

If music can affect our mood without our awareness, can we harness that power to influence our moods purposefully?  I know that Bach has gotten me through some very difficult times.  When everything else in my life seems like it is falling apart, I can put on the some of the piano works and feel a shift.  Even though listening to Bach won’t fix my life, it can remind me that some things maintain their integrity and will stay stable even if I feel like I am coming unglued.   I also know that I have run some pretty long distances listening to even cheesy music like Tom Petty singing “I Won’t Back Down.”  Having a sound track for parts of your life can shift mood, support memory, and remind you that your life is bigger than the story you tell yourself. Check it out: notice music in your everyday world and see what it is doing to your inner space.  Then see how you can use that information consciously.

Knowing by slowing…

Body psychotherapy isn’t as odd-sounding as it once was.  People are beginning to understand that the mind and body are not really separate, that there are tissues in the gut, for example, that are much like brain tissue, that emotions are experienced at the body level, and that even those classic “psychological” problems of depression and anxiety are body experiences.   The mind of course is part of them;  the kinds of distorted thinking that we engage in when we are experiencing depression or anxiety can most certainly make things a lot worse.   But I am not sure that the chicken-egg question matters here….I personally don’t care if how you feel affects how you think, or if your thoughts are affecting your emotions.  The point is that things are pretty bad, one way or another, and how can you live more comfortably?

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So it is obvious, I guess, that developing awareness of what you are thinking can make a difference.  You can even change your habits of mind.  You can also change your habits of body, and your habitual ways of responding to situations, and those kinds of changes can be most helpful in trying to cope with symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Self awareness is the key to any kind of change.  You can’t change if you don’t know what you are currently doing.    And the key to self awareness is, for many of us, slowing down.  Slowing our everyday experiences so that there is time for self-reflection, slowing our thinking, so that we can become aware of thoughts as they arise and fade away, slowing our behaviour so that we can become responsive rather than in the perpetual knee-jerk of reaction.

What happens when you slow down?   Just take a moment to notice what happens….without judgment, without struggle, with compassion.   For many of us, slowing down generates negative thoughts (“this is unproductive,”  “I”ll never accomplish anything,”  “Does she think I’m not a busy person?  I don’t have time for this nonsense.”).   For some people, the open space of unstructured time feels uncomfortable, as if you should DO something.   For some, a bit of quiet allows us to feel our exhaustion, the fatigue that comes with forever and forever keeping up a front, being frantically productive and chronically stressed.

But without judgment and with compassion, what is it like for you to take time and space to just be?  What do you notice about yourself?   Who are you, really, when you separate yourself from the story inside your head?

Wherever you are is the place to work.  Notice sensation in the body.  Notice what you notice in your environment;  what are you sensitive to in this moment?  In the next moment?   Notice thoughts as they arise and fade out.   Notice which ones tug hardest on your attention.  Notice more sensations in the body;  try moving, and notice what that is like.   Can you feel the desire to move, the intention to move, before you manifest that intention into action?  Where in your body are you aware of that intention?   How do you KNOW, in your body, that you want to move?