Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

Ideas-in-progress, 9/29/2011 edition

Still playing with yesterday’s ideas about beauty.  Here’s more to consider this morning:

Beauty is hard to pin down with a definition, but one thing I think is always true about it is that it carries its own internal sense of rightness, correctness, wholeness.  It doesn’t need outside approval to be considered “right.”  It simply is.

Here’s a mental exercise to play with this idea: call to mind something that you find really beautiful.  Hold that image strongly in your mind’s eye.  Really appreciate the beauty you see there.

Now, while thinking about that thing which is beautiful, try to apply this saying to it:

“That is so *wrong*.

Does that cause some mental dissonance?  Does your mind want to pull back from that statement?  Observe your reaction.  Now, with your beautiful image still in your mind’s eye, try to say this:

“That is so *right*.

Again, observe your reaction.  Try the same experiment with different images, or even better go find things that are beautiful and try it on them.

Yes?  No?  Am I right, am I wrong?  I’d love to know what you think, please leave a comment with any insights or arguments.  More musing on beauty to come…

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Martial artist? Who, me?

I’m still thinking about ideas from Saturday’s leadership class at my martial-arts school, which I started talking about on Monday. As I wrote then, we started by answering this question: at the very end of my life, what would constitute success? What would it take for me to call my life successful?

After this biggest-of-the-big-picture question, we used the same technique to step backwards from the end and consider different aspects of life. One of which was, at the very end of my time as a martial artist, on the very last day on which I practice these arts, what would it take to call that time successful?

I never actually found an answer, because I was floundering too much over the question. Martial artist? Who, me? I’m a martial artist?

For necessary context, I’ve been studying taiji for a little more than a year. I’ve learned a few short forms in different styles, a number of movements, a number of the principles behind those movements, and occasionally, I can even put one or other of those principles into use. I fully recognize that I’ve learned some stuff about taiji. But, still. Martial artist? I’m learning about a martial art, but I really struggle to accept that identity, and I’m really thinking hard about why that is.

I think about the other new students at the school, the white- and yellow-belts in the kung fu classes, the really young kids in the kung fu-based fitness and activity classes. Would I look any of them in the eye and say, “nope. You’re not a martial artist.”

Would I look at any of my own fellow students in the taiji sessions, all the ones who are still working on basic ideas and trying to get the pieces to fit together, and tell them “sorry, you don’t count. Not a martial artist.”

Is it the art itself? Is taiji not a “real” martial art, because it looks soft and flowy, because it’s not about punching and kicking, not as overtly about fighting? Oh no indeed. Taiji is just as serious a martial, fighting art as any other, if one wants to train up and use it that way.

So, what? In the middle of all this, why do I not count as a “martial artist?” I can just about claim the title, if I’m careful to qualify it — I could maybe, possibly call myself a “beginning martial artist.” Maybe. But why do I need the qualifier? Isn’t a beginning martial artist a martial artist?

It matters that I don’t claim this identity for myself, because it affects the way I think about myself, and the things I choose to do. I don’t take my study quite as seriously as I might, if I were a real martial artist. I don’t think about getting better at this art in a useful way. I don’t think about the changes it makes in me to claim the identity for myself, the confidence it could bestow, the discipline it could help me create.

It makes me think about other identities that I don’t claim, that I can’t quite apply to myself with a straight face. Writer? Professional? Businesswoman? Freelancer?

And beyond those, beyond specific roles, there are more general things, characteristics and descriptors. Am I competent? Resourceful? Valuable? Strong? Desireable? Beautiful?

It means something, these words I am able or unable to claim. Claiming the identity changes what I choose to do, and the things I do in large part determine who I am and who I am becoming. So who do I want to be? How do I take on those titles, so they can help me remake myself?

I am an inexperienced, beginning taiji student, but that is a real thing. I am a beginning martial artist. I am a martial artist. I am.

Ideas-in-progress, 9/28/2011 edition

It’s funny how the mind works. During my ordinary treadmill walking/meditation/prayer time this morning, a single verse compelled me to read it and ponder it and pray about it, and led onward to one thought and another, until I reached an idea which is so compelling to me that it has consumed my entire day so far. I’m filling notebook pages about it and looking around my house to spot it in action and thinking about what it means in my life-so-far and my life-under-way.

I am so compelled by this idea that I am not going to do what I normally do, which is ponder it until I feel like I have it all in order from one end to the other and then write up a single post about it. I’m going to write the idea as it is here, still being formed, as it sits in my own mind and heart. I’m not going to explain it yet, I’m just going to say it:

God has never, ever made anything which is un-beautiful.

Beauty inherently carries its own right-ness.

The concept of “beauty” is much, much bigger than often assumed.

An alternate standard of behavior: not right vs. wrong, but beautiful vs. ugly. Choosing what to do by whether or not it is beautiful, not whether or not it is right.

I’m going to be doing a lot more thinking and writing about all of this myself, but I also know a lot of thoughtful people and I’m curious what you think. Am I brilliant or a loony? Am I missing something important? Am I wrong, all wrong? Am I just not making any sense at all? Let’s chat; write a comment, about what I’m saying or about what beauty is or means to you. Give us all some more food for thought.

More ideas-in-progress to come…

Closed

Yesterday my friend Carolyn wrote with great clarity and compassion about vulnerability.  If you only have time to read one thing right now, go read that.  Seriously, it’s worth it.

I read Carolyn’s words and the truth in them bit deep.  Because I can’t do it.  I can’t take the risk of being open, whether it is an imaginary risk or not.  It looms too large regardless.

I feel right now like I’m stuck in so many ways, or just clueless about things I need to be smart about, and more than anything else, alone.  I’m not developing a writing career, not looking for another job, not keeping up with taking care of myself, not carrying through with good intentions, and in the middle of it all, I feel alone.  I’m desperate for encouragement and support, desperate for (healthy, sensitive) kicks in the rear end when I am inclined to be lazy or give up on myself too easily, desperate for help to let myself off the hooks I hang myself on.  To be looked in the eye and loved in the middle of my messiness.  But it won’t happen, because I’m the one who’ll look away.  I won’t risk an eye that sees with contempt.  I won’t take that chance.

In my worst moments, I might howl in my online communities to release the pressure.  I know a lot of wise and compassionate people there, who all live very far away.  At the point of contact, I can reduce them to words on a screen if I need to.  I can close the computer and walk away, and they can’t follow me.  Distance makes them safe.  It also means they can’t help with what I need most.  They can’t be present.  They can’t see what’s wrong unless I say it.  They don’t get to offer the kinds of practical support that can happen from a distance, because I don’t ask for it.  Nobody gets inside the gritty details of my life-in-progress.  Nobody gets to comment on it negatively.  I make sure of that.  Nobody gets the chance.

There’s that old saw about insanity defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I try to pursue change on my own, and my success is always limited, and there comes a point where I give up in discouragement, unable to see or take credit for any progress gained.  I need help to see it and help to keep going, but I won’t seek it.  I can’t even articulate why, except it feels dangerous and I won’t do it.  This feels like the real change I need to pursue, breaking open the shield-layer that isolates me, but I can’t face it.  I can’t imagine taking that on.  All I can do right now is own that the shield is there.  I’ll let you see that much.  But you’re not getting through.

Different and better

Last Saturday afternoon was the monthly “leadership class” at the martial arts school, a special class about leadership and personal-development topics, for coaches and leaders at the school and anyone who has an interest in leadership or self-growth. It is nearly always a thought-provoking session, and this month’s class was even more so than most.

The topic this month was about what “success” is and means, and the guy in charge of the class and the school, Coach Jose, started with a hypothetical question: on the very very last day of your life, what would it mean if your life had been “successful”? What kinds of things would your life need to consist of, in order for you to be able to say at the very end that you had succeeded?

My answer is fairly simple and came very fairly fast. On my last day, my life will have been successful if the world is different and better because I was here, particularly because there are people who are different and better. That’s not complicated for me at all.

Coach Jose’s answer, however, really made me think. He said he will consider his life to have been successful if he got to do the things he wanted to do and enjoy all the things he enjoys.

I will confess that if a person I didn’t know at all gave that sort of answer, I would probably, secretly, think it at least a little bit selfish, and maybe more than a little bit selfish. But the answer really came from someone I know and highly respect. “Selfish” is in no way an appropriate word to apply to my coach. I’ve seen the work he does and the lengths he goes to in order to help other people grow and live better; I know that’s a strong motivation behind the work he does. So his selfward-pointed definition of success made me think, and it’s still making me think.

I don’t really appear in my own definition of success, not to myself. It’s about other people. But how am I going to help anyone become “different and better?” Don’t I increase my chances of being able to do so by continuing to learn new skills and becoming a stronger, better person?

But that’s not even it, because that’s still about other people. What if the world is different and better at the end of my life simply and only because I have made myself different and better? Would that not count, all on its own?

I struggle with legitimizing the investment of time and love in myself. If I ever do, it’s often via a dodge toward “being more useful to other people.” But seriously, do I not count, all on my own? And would it be necessarily selfish if I decided that I did?

The Story of Ruth: Bitter Choices

Ruth 1:12b-13:

“Even if I thought there was still hope for me — even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons — would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!”

Naomi hears that the Lord has provided for his people: there is food again in Israel. With little to keep her in Moab, she prepares to return home. Her two daughters-in-law prepare also and set out on the road with her. Before long, though, Naomi tells them to stop. She blesses the young women and bids them to leave her, to go back to their own mothers and start over.

The women are distraught, and Orpah and Ruth protest, offering to stay with Naomi and go with her to her own people. But Naomi rebuffs them forcefully, insisting they leave. What they need, she says, is husbands — the particular thing that brought them into Naomi’s life in the first place, and the thing which she can’t provide them with again. Naomi believes that cutting her personal ties to Orpah and Ruth is the only thing she can do to provide them with good lives. They are all that’s left of her family, and for their sakes she is trying to make them leave her too.

Naomi is despondent and bitter in spirit, and that colors her actions. Bitterness and depression cloud the mind and narrow the vision, making it hard to see any way out of difficulties. Naomi sees very little hope for herself, and the only hope she sees for her daughters-in-law is the obvious path, the path they have already walked with her — find husbands and start new families. Naomi says the Lord’s hand has gone out against her, but she does not here remember the Lord’s love and constant faithfulness. Her view of the world is very stark.

I’m not about to blame Naomi for her hopelessness, though. She has suffered great blows, emotional, social, and economic. She has lost people she loved, and who she also depended on to live, as families needed to work together in order to make a living. It’s possible she was leaving for home because the loss of her sons had left her homeless; maybe the property they had lived on was inherited by other male members of their families, and Naomi was left with nothing. She may not have had anywhere left to go. Naomi has experienced truly great tragedy, and she is not wrong to express the pain and loss of it.

The story here shows us two things that Naomi still had, though, which ultimately lifted her out of despondence. First, God is still with her, and she still acknowledges him. Even in her grief and loss, she blesses her daughters-in-law in the name of the Lord; when she speaks of her lost family, she says it’s the Lord’s hand which has gone against her. Naomi still speaks as though she is in the presence of the Lord, and God is still present in her story. He doesn’t explain why he lets hardships in, but he is constantly faithful to us, even in the midst of terrible times.

Second, Naomi isn’t left alone. We need other people to remind us about hope when we are in despair, or sometimes we need other people to hold on to hope for us, when we simply can’t. Sometimes the worst thing you can do for a person who is hurting is to tell them “it’s all right, there’s hope, it’ll all turn out okay.” To that aching soul, encouraging them to feel hope instead of pain can seem like a negation of their experience; pain is real and has to be felt before it will ever really leave. Sometimes what a person in pain needs is for other people to step in and stand with them, sit with them, listen to them, take care of their needs, and stick with them through whatever they are feeling. A person in despair needs someone to actively love them.

Naomi intended to walk home alone, but she needed company. She needed the Lord who she feared had turned against her, and she needed someone close to her to share the journey and the hardships. The Lord refused to abandon her, and so did the young woman named Ruth.

The Essential Energies: Core

In class last night I briefly discussed an issue I’ve been having with one of my coaches; in trying to “sink” into my stances, I have been struggling to find the balance between really sinking my center of gravity, and feeling like I’m going to tip over backwards. She reminded me to use my abdominal muscles to support the motion, which so far has made a real difference (I still have work to do in order to incorporate the change into my movement).

I needed the reminder that the abdominal muscles, or core muscles, are vitally important in taiji movement. All movements involve this part of the body; most are initiated and directed by it. The core is literally the center of the body, the crossroads where everything connects. In order for the entire body to move in a connected, fluid way, the core needs to be strong and active.

I’ve been paying more attention to my core muscles since last night, as I move through my ordinary activities. On the treadmill this morning I really noticed it at work; as I pushed my walking speed up over 3 MPH, my core muscles naturally engaged to support the effort the rest of my body was making, where at slower speeds I can get away (and commonly do) with not actively using my core. I’ve observed before that I have a tendency to slouch, and if I need to stand for long periods of time my lower back typically gets very stiff. I’ve just realized that when my core muscles aren’t engaged, all of the weight of my abdomen effectively hangs off my spine in a way that makes it practically impossible to relax and lengthen my lower back. When I use my core muscles to support the abdomen, the extra stress on my lower back is released.

I’m not done observing how my body uses and needs my core to support it, but I am already reminded of some global life-lessons. Do I have a strong sense of my “core” as a person — who I am, what I believe in, who and what I love, who and what I am committed to, what I am good and bad at, what I enjoy? Do I have clarity about these things, and am I doing anything to increase that clarity? Am I working to strengthen these fundamentals? Am I using this core of my being to support and guide what I do in life?

Taiji teaches me I need a strong physical core in order to have a healthy physical body and in order to move well. It also reminds me that I need a strong core as a person, if I want to be healthy in every aspect of life and in order to move effectively through the world.

No vile thing

Meditation on Psalm 101:2-3

Yesterday morning, in my daily reading of some portion of the Psalms, I landed on Psalm 101. This is one of David’s psalms, and in this prayer he speaks at length about the ways in which he guards his life from evil influences. Verses 2 and 3 read in part like this:

I will walk in my house
with blameless heart.
I will set before my eyes
no vile thing.

David is wise to guard his eyes, as vision is the most powerful of the senses to most humans. He is determined to live before God in righteousness in every part of his life — not just in public where his people were watching, but everywhere, including the privacy of his most personal space.

I spent a chunk of my morning thinking about this psalm, praying for insight and asking specifically if there was anything I put before my eyes that is unhealthy to me or offensive to God. Afterward I pursued my normal routines, cleaning up in the kitchen, making tea, eating breakfast. I opened up my computer to check my email and get to work.

And proceeded to spend the next several hours wasting time by looking at the internet.

I’m not going to confess some unexpected, lurid and tantalizing secret sin here, because there isn’t any to confess. I didn’t spend all day looking at stuff that was blatantly, unquestionably vile. Mostly I read my primary social outlets: Ravelry, Facebook, a couple of blogs I follow, and email. I was reading and responding to things posted by my friends, and none of them are vile either. Lovely, smart, funny people, all of them. I didn’t search out a single thing that I would even think of naming “vile.” And yet, the sum total of my time and effort for most of my day was to have looked at a lot of trivia and ephemeral things that aren’t making any strong difference in my life, while neglecting several important things that could have made that kind of difference, for me or other people.

Is a picture of a cute kitten vile, or a joke from a friend, or an interesting conversation that happens to be online? No, certainly not. When a deluge of such things takes over an entire day though, when the sum effect of all of those innocent bits and pieces is to steal my time and therefore my life, what do I call that? When I perpetuate this waste upon myself, neglecting things that really are important and would benefit my life and other people’s lives, what do I call that? Is “vile” too strong? Is it strong enough?

I haven’t decided that yet for myself, and I seriously hesitate to apply such a strong word, but it is providing serious food for thought. I can say two things for certain; first, I am absolutely not calling the internet as a whole or any large social site like Facebook or Twitter categorically wrong, or “vile.” All of those things are a mixed bag, with stellar parts and abominable parts and every sort of in-between part. It’s up to the individual to pursue what they find good, and avoid what isn’t.

Second, David was wise to protect himself by guarding his eyes. He was wise in knowing that we humans are easily distractable and tempted away from our best intentions. I am not going to cut online interactions completely out of my life, but I am thinking about how I may need to start protecting myself from indulging in them to excess, in order to pursue more worthy goals and purposes.

What I choose

I have observed before that sometimes the most heartfelt, powerful prayers are the most blunt ones, the ones where emotion can’t be tamed into pretty, prim words.

Tuesday afternoon, lying on my back in bed in the midst of a deep funk, my prayers were all blunt. I felt horrible and wrong and angry and tired, I prayed. I’m scared and I don’t know what to do, I prayed. I want to have the next section of my life settled now, I want to have a paying job, I want to know what I’m supposed to do. I want to do what you have in mind, God, I prayed, and I don’t know what that is, and why will you just not fix this already?

There were other prayers to say, though, prayers I had to add. Hard ones, also blunt. From the very beginning of the year, even before I knew my job was ending, I have been praying, “Choose whatever you want for me, and that’s what I choose.” I have prayed numerous times for God to send whatever he wants to me, and that’s what I’ll take. I can’t say that’s what I want, because it may or may not be what I want. That doesn’t matter. It’s a prayer of the will, aside from wants.

I’ve been praying this because I believe God has better ideas than mine. I believe I was designed and purpose-built to be good at specific things, things the world needs, and God’s the one who thought that up and made it happen. He is more wise and more clever than I am, and whatever he has in mind is for the best — my best and someone else’s best, other people who need me and what I can do. If I give him half a chance, he’ll do something astonishing, and I’ll get to be part of it. I’ll get to do work and have experiences in life that I would never have imagined, if he gets to have his way, because his imagination is beyond human imagining. But to get to that bit, I have to give him free reign. I have to let him set things up. I have to wait for the right time and the right order of events, and I don’t know what that is. I don’t get a checklist. I get a God who says “Seriously, you have to trust me. You can’t live without trusting me, and this is how you have to learn it. This is how it works.”

I don’t like that answer. I don’t like it one blessed bit, but it’s the only answer there is. This is where I find out if God is good for his word. This is where I take a chance on being part of something bigger than I would have thought up for myself, and the only way to get to it is the same simple prayer I have held all along: whatever you choose for me, that’s what I choose.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know what to do yet, or where I belong, or where to look, or what I’m going to be doing next week or month. I don’t know what my next job will be. I don’t know what kind of hard knocks and challenging days are coming. I’m putting God’s name on the line, and letting it be his call. If something amazing comes, then the credit will be all his. If nothing amazing happens, that’ll be me screwing things up again. But I don’t really believe my ability to screw things up is bigger than God’s ability to make astonishing things happen. I know very little, but I do trust in that.

Whatever you choose, Lord, send me that. Ready for it or not, that’s my pick.

Resume

So it feels like time to pick up real life again. At least some of it.

For the last few days I alternately prowled my house, feeling snarly and swearing at things occasionally, or slouched around my ordinary internet crossroads, also being snarly and sort-of trying not to flame anyone who didn’t deserve it (with only moderate success), or lying in my couch or on my bed for hours, playing mindless iPad games or just looking into nowhere.

I feel like I had been accruing stress, fear, and anxiety for a long while, and when it finally broke through to the surface, it all had to get felt in order to drain away. I haven’t really been experiencing it as it came along, so it didn’t go away, just piled up under the surface. I feel like all of that howling, angry energy is gone now, and I can look around and take stock of where I am.

There’s more to say and more work to do. The sources of anxiety and squirrelly, bad energy haven’t been done away with. But I’m ready to look at them again, look with different eyes, not clouded by the haze of fear and resentment. It’s time to un-pause. Time to resume.