Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Gifts

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to change and the things I’d like to change, one of them the negative perspective on the world that shadows my days and sucks the joy out of many things. In order for change to happen, action needs to happen. If you don’t do something, then you take no part in shaping what you get.

I remembered a book I read a while ago, One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. She writes about her own struggle with the pain, loss, and fears of life, and how she learned to overcome them by expressing gratitude. She accepts a friend’s dare to write down one thousand gifts, one thousand things she is blessed with, and the process of writing and learning to observe and be grateful for the moments and details of her very own life are transformative.

I have such a hard time paying attention to what’s really here and happening. My mind is always running away, and too often running toward worry, finding the spiraling path down and down into frazzled fear and discontentment. It’s not a good place to be, and I’ve practiced running those trails too long. I need practice in running toward what’s good, whole, and real. I still want to have adventures. I so badly want to find joy in life.

I have a little notebook that a friend gave me a while ago, a slim, pretty little journal. I’ve started my own list of gifts, the blessings of my very own life, which I take so little note of. I need some basic training in gratitude, and here’s a place to start.

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The Essential Energies: Effort

I haven’t had much opportunity yet for practicing taiji push hands, a deficit I want to rectify as soon as I can. “Push hands” is the taiji form of sparring or partner training, when you use your skills against another person instead of inside the context of a form. The idea is to learn how to feel another person’s movement and find ways to push them off balance, using taiji principles and motions. Pushing against another person is a vital way to learn about the energy at play inside taiji — if you never put that energy to use against something physical, how can you be sure if the energy is there? It’s educational to push against someone and feel how one’s own body responds, especially if it reveals unexpected tension or weakness. Adversity is a powerful teacher, even a gentle, collegial adversity like training push hands with a partner.

In the few occasions I’ve had to practice push hands drills, I’ve been surprised sometimes by how little force it really takes to move someone, when you let the movement work the way it is supposed to. The couple of times I’ve managed to push someone off balance, I felt like I barely did anything, but my partner still moved. I remember the surprise of those moments, the feeling of “what just happened here?”

I know my surprise stems from an unconscious assumption that moving someone who doesn’t want to be moved is hard, and it’s going to take effort. I get distracted by the fact that someone is in the way of how I’m moving and instead of just trusting the movement to do its work, I start to use more muscle and try to shove my partner around. I pile on effort to get a result, and it doesn’t work — it actually wrecks the result I’m looking for.

So it can take very little effort to move someone, when one uses taiji to do the moving. But in a different sense, it takes tremendous effort to move someone using taiji. Gaining this ability is an example of gong-fu — a skill acquired through time and effort. Nearly every physical art is a kind of gong-fu, because the body needs time and repeated action to learn and change. Taiji is no exception. It needs repeated effort, repeated intention, repeated practice, repeated motion, to absorb its principles and learn how to use them effectively. It takes a very great effort, but a kind of effort that can’t be exerted all at once, out of nowhere. It’s effort that has to be exerted over a long period of time, accrued bit by tiny bit, until in the moment when one pushes against an opponent, the effort required to move the opponent is just one tiny bit more. In the moment when the taiji player shifts someone off balance, the effort visible is only the tip of the proverbial iceburg, floating on top of a mountain of prior study and hard work.

There is this about watching anyone at work who has really mastered what they do — in the moment of performance, the act appears effortless. We envy the virtuoso his or her skill in any arena, be it the athlete, the musician, the artist, the actor, the teacher, the leader. Don’t be fooled by the apparent ease of what you see. Remember the effort required to succeed is enormous, but also stretched out over time and measured in discrete, manageable pieces. The moment of effortless, beautiful performance is simply the cap, the last dram of effort, the final flourish.

Gong-fu

Last week I wrote some things about noticing how often I am negative, and also about how our methods of speech and thought can trip up even our best efforts toward making changes. I’m still thinking about the complexity and subtlety of our mental lives, how we are made up of so many patterns and pieces and often have such little awareness of what they are and how they affect us. When it comes to what we do and who we are, habits always win — but how conscious are we of all our habits? Sometimes the more habitual a thing is, the more invisible it becomes. We might not even realize that we have any choice about it.

There’s a Chinese word “gong-fu” that applies here. If I use the alternative spelling “kung-fu” it will give some of my readers the wrong idea — in America, kung fu has become the word commonly used for Chinese martial arts. But in Chinese there are different words for martial arts; gong-fu is a broader concept. It refers to any sort of skill or mastery that can only be obtained through practice, over a period of time. One can certainly acquire gong-fu in a martial art, because it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to master those arts. But one can also have gong-fu in many other things.

Our mental patterns develop over time and via our experiences and choices. We learn how to think and act from our infancy, amassing years and years of practice in being “ourselves.” There is gong-fu in this, whether we realize it or not. I find it a terrible irony that every time we think poorly about ourselves, every time we choose not to believe in our abilities and potential, every single time our thoughts boil down to some version of “I’m a no-good nothing and I’ll never be any better,” we are practicing being horrible to ourselves. We practice our doubts and deepen our gong-fu of negativity, deception, and sabotage. If we aim these skills primarily at ourselves rather than other people, it doesn’t make them any less awful.

If there is gong-fu in thinking negatively, then there is also a gong-fu of thinking positively. Encouraging ourselves is a skill that can be acquired through hard work, over a period of time. It involves the daily choices of what to say and what to think, rejecting the old patterns and moving in new ones, whether or not they feel comfortable or seem true. It is not a kind of change that will come all at once, and I for one have too often been discouraged when personal changes didn’t stick as fast or hard as I wanted them to. But it helps to think about this process as one of acquiring gong-fu, because gong-fu only accrues over time and with much repetition. It applies to things that require intention and commitment, to skills and strengths that grow with practice.

I have been studying taijiquan for two years, and through my practice have discovered things that I didn’t even know existed when I began — and even so I know that I am still a beginner with many things to explore. I am a beginner too at thinking positively and learning how to encourage myself. If I keep practicing the gong-fu of thinking well, in two years, five years, ten years, who knows what I will discover?

Pirate girls

This weekend Pig-Tail Girl and her family came up to our area to celebrate a wedding in the family. The wedding was Saturday, and yesterday was for just hanging out.

Or not. Because Pig-Tail Girl always has ideas for things to do, and yesterday she decided to run a pirate ship. I was recruited first and as such became First Mate.

We dug mightily and long for buried treasure in the gravel of my parents’ driveway. We unburied some interesting stones, but less treasure than a greedy pirate could wish for, alas.

Pig-Tail Girl’s mom was pressed into service as Second Mate, and her Grammy became Third Mate. The porch became the bow of our pirate ship, plus a goodly quantity of back yard. I think we may be the first pirates ever to operate a cruise ship.

While trying to assign duties, we realized that none of us know what mates actually do on a ship. Adjourning indoors, we consulted the internet. As it turns out, the First Mate is responsible for cargo and the deck department, the Second Mate is often responsible for navigation, and the Third Mate is generally responsible for looking after the crew. Considering who she assigned where, Pig-Tail Girl was quite wise in her staffing decisions.

The wild blue beckoned, and outdoors we trooped, resuming the search for treasure. Until the First, Second, and Third Mates realized that our Cap’n had assigned away all the ship’s duties to us, and herself had no work to do but all the treasure to claim. Thereupon we mutinied (what good is a pirate adventure without a mutiny for spice?) We grabbed our scurvy captain and threatened to make her walk the plank. As First Mate, I led the charge.

The captain retreated up the sloping cellar doors on the back of the house. I gave chase. She made daring swoops with her airy cutlass; I parried them bravely. She leaped away and grabbed up a sword of weed, a more hardy blade than our keen-edged imaginations. I found a green-stemed saber and rose to the challenge.

The matter was by no means decided when one of my cousins and her boyfriend, both visiting the area for the weekend, dropped in to say hello. We forgot our quarrel and ganged up on the newcomers, pressing them into service. Why argue about who does the work when you can shanghai landlubbers and make them do it for you?

We never did find any treasure. But we had a right grand and lively afternoon. Aye, me friends, fer certain sure we did.

What’s up with that?

Last night on my way to bed I picked up the notebook I use for the examen, to write down my answers to the two questions “for what moment today are you the most grateful?” and “for what moment today are you the least grateful?”  Except I didn’t come to the questions that way.  I write down the answer to the “most grateful” question first, because that’s the way I saw the questions first written out and it just seems like the way it should be.  But almost every night, when I pick up my notebook, the thing on the tip of my tongue and the tip of my pen is the thing I am least grateful for.  Almost every single night, I have to consciously redirect myself toward considering what I am most grateful for, before I can write down the ready answer about what I am not grateful for.  Only if something spectacularly good happened during the day does the pattern reverse.

Seriously?  Am I so tuned to seeing life in negative terms?  Apparently so.  Which is a deflating thought, because I know being constantly negative is a serious handicap in living well and accomplishing something in life.

But see there?  SEE?  I just did it again.  Always with the negative.  What’s UP with that?

Whatever’s UP with it, I’d like it to be taken down and left behind.  How do you cultivate real gratitude and positivity? How do I reverse my impulse and learn to automatically think about what’s good?  That’s the question I’m pondering today.

Dread terrors

A lot of people like this beginning-phase of summer, when the weather is warm but not usually roasting in this part of the world, when the kids are out of school and therefore everything has a holiday kind of feel, like something separate from normal time.  Summer is for kicking back, enjoying the long days, going on trips, having adventures.

I get that.  I don’t begrudge anyone else their fun, but summer isn’t my favorite season.  The heat doesn’t help, especially when it comes with stifling humidity.  But a worse thing for me is this is the season when a lot of crawly things are active in the world.  Bugs and spiders of all sorts have always made me jump.  The worst for me though, are earwigs.  It’s honestly difficult just to write the word.  It seems like this summer is bad for them, or maybe I’m overly sensitive, but this month has not been much fun and those ugly crawly things are a big part of it.

There was one summer when I was growing up, I can’t remember exactly when but I think I was in my very early teens or a tick younger, when I first took note of these ugly things in a bad way.  I don’t even remember seeing them before, but for some reason they got into our house that year and it was like they were suddenly everywhere — no matter what I wanted to do, whatever normal summer amusements, there might be a startling, ugly bug sitting there to scare me.  I remember I was going to put my head down on a chair arm for a nap once and suddenly there was one right there.  They would crawl up on my bedroom walls and make me scared to go to sleep; there was one terrible night when one woke me up by sitting on my cheek.  I didn’t even know what they were called, but these unnamed, dreadful things were everywhere and tormenting me and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it.

It’s taken a long time and living in my own apartment, where there isn’t anyone else to make deal with the icky bugs, for me to slowly get over my fear of crawly things.  I’m noticing this year that a lot of them don’t scare me nearly as much as they used to — except the earwigs.  These still have the power to wreck my entire day, when one appears out of nowhere, like a dark, tormenting vision, right in the middle of whatever I was planning.  They’re like one of the creepiest antagonists from one of my favorite TV shows — they’re not everywhere, but they could be anywhere, and so I find myself always anxious and expecting trouble.  Being surprised and scared once can wreck my entire day, if not longer.  It’s really becoming a problem.

I can’t let my life be wrecked by stupid crawly bugs.  I’m doing what I can to fight back, and part of it is just plain owning the fear.  This week I have growled to my community on Ravelry, whined to a good friend by email, and mentioned it in person when I got to chat with a friend in person.  Now I’m writing the story here too, even though it fills my gut up with tension just to type the words.  Fear magnifies itself by pushing you away from facing it, pretending that it is enormous and will vaporize you where you stand if you only dare speak its name.  I’m not letting it pull that trick today.  I may feel anxious over writing about earwigs, but I will nonetheless write.

There’s more than just the experience of being startled by crawly things, though.  The more I notice that other kinds of bugs don’t bother me so much, even when I don’t love them and when they startle me, the more I realize there’s something else going on with my fear of earwigs.  This fear pretends to be about crawly bugs, but it’s something much deeper and harder.

The summer when I was first scared out of my pants by these stupid things, I felt like there was nothing I could do about it — whether I liked it or not, I was going to keep having these terrible experiences of being really scared and there was no stopping it.  Ever since, that’s how I feel about bugs in my house, that they get into my sanctuary space and make it uncertain, spoiling my haven with their sneaky, pop-out-of-nowhere ways.  Unless I move into a hermetically-sealed bubble, this is just how things are, and I resist it mightily, but there isn’t any changing it.

Fear about bugs is really a fear of not having control.  I can’t control where crawly things go.  I can’t seal myself away from the world and never, ever be surprised by something in my space, a bug or a spider or a person or an image or a thought.  There’s no way to control everything, and that is a really terrifying thought.  My sense of safety is so closely tied to this need for control, and right now I get frequent reminders that I don’t really have enough control over the world to be utterly safe.  I’m one human, one woman, and that isn’t much in the grand scheme of how the world runs.  I am not in control here, and that affects so much more than whether or not a bug sneaks into my home.  I’m not in control when it comes to whether or not I have paying work, or whether or not I have acceptance, friendship, and love, the two major sources of uncertainty in my life as it stands.

So what to do?  Two things, one of them difficult, one of them even more difficult.

The first one is exercising whatever control I have.  Humans can’t live well when we feel like we don’t have any choices, and I have lots of choices.  One of mine right now is to work on cleaning up my house and making things tidy, because it helps me to feel like this is my space and it’s welcoming and safe.  One way to face what may be lurking in corners to go into those corners with a vacuum hose or dustrag and clean them up.

I can take control in the deeper things.  I can seek out new possibilities for making a living, viewing the process as exploration and adventure rather than hopeless, terrorizing, doomed and clueless wandering.  I can go looking for opportunities to spend time with people and opportunities to be someone’s friend, because we all need friends.  If I don’t have absolute control, I do have options and possible actions, and I need to take them.  A lot of this stuff falls in the region of simple-but-not-easy — simple actions, difficult to take. Not difficult for everyone but difficult for me, or else I would have done them already.  Bravery is needed.  Fortunately, I’m already working on that.

The second thing I can do about my fear of not having control is … to let go of feeling like I need to have control.  To decouple my sense of safety and comfort from needing to be sure that everything is going to be the way I think it’s going to be — or if not to separate them entirely, at least to prise them apart a bit.

That’s so hard, hard even to think about.  I don’t know if I can live without the illusion that things are safe and controlled.  I really don’t know if I’m strong enough to make that change.  I don’t know what it would take.

I do at least know where to take it — into prayer.  Into writing.  Into conversations with people I love.  If I am not in control of the world, then I know who is, and I know he’s on my side.  Whatever I can do to sink that truth more deeply into my mind and heart, that’s what I can do.

It’s a big, scary world.  It’s also an exciting world, full of possible adventures.  I don’t want to miss the fun because of fear, even when I’m not in charge of the expedition.

Comfort

This week I’ve been letting myself have a few extra minutes in bed after my alarm rings, rather than flogging myself up straight away (or beating up on myself later if I couldn’t flog myself out of bed right away).  It’s always been my inclination to sleep in rather than hop right up in the morning, but that’s an inclination I have been resentful of on a lot of days, when there were things to do and I didn’t snap right to and get busy.

I have a little more grace for myself over this now, after a couple of weeks of focused training in being brave.  Bravery requires strength, and strength wears out.  Recovering physical strength needs rest and sleep; recovering emotional strength needs rest too, but not only physical rest.  It needs comfort and relaxed ease; it needs the perception of safety and love.

For a number of reasons, that perception has been lacking lately.  Earlier this week, when I set my snooze alarm and fell back into bed, I noticed I finally had it — that cozy sense of safety and comfort.  It’s harder for me to find at night while going to sleep, echoes of childhood fear of the dark, but in the morning when there’s light, when the night is over and nothing scary happened during it, then I can relax and notice the softness of my pillow, the smooth comfort of sheets and warmth of a coverlet if it’s a cool morning, I can breathe deep and feel myself covered, calm, and safe.  Sometimes I imagine what it would be to have the solidity and presence of someone else here, warm skin and the nape of a neck to tuck my face into, the shadow of another soul to hide away with.  If a daydream isn’t everything, it’s not nothing either.  An imagined sense of love and acceptance can still help to create a moment of peace.

I want to learn how to be brave, which means deliberately facing up to scary things and doing them.  If I want to keep growing here, if I don’t want to break and run crying for mommy, I’m going to need to cultivate moments of comfort, moments when I don’t have to be on my guard and staring down monsters.  I don’t know how to be brave all the time and I don’t know if anyone can actually do it.  I’m not much of an adventurous soul yet, but I want to be more of one — I need practice, which means I need rest and recovery, and that means I need comfort too.

Brave

Sometimes it takes the smallest change in perspective to make all the difference in the world.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching part of an online coaching seminar, in which a speaker was helping a woman work through some of the issues holding her back from pursuing health goals.  There was a point where he asked what she really wanted, and her answer was that she wanted not to be so negative all the time, as her negative attitude about the possibility of change sabotaged her efforts.

What the trainer said next grabbed me by both ears.  He noted that the thing the woman doesn’t want was embedded in her own language, and therefore was embedded in her thoughts whenever she said it.  It’s like saying “don’t think of the letter B, don’t think of the letter B, don’t think of the letter B.”  What else are you thinking about but the letter B?  You can’t avoid thinking about it, as long as you tell yourself “don’t think of the letter B.”  The only way not to think about a thing is to actively choose something else to think about.  To move away from something you don’t want, think about and then go chase something you do want.

Over the past couple of months, with the help of the examen and other observations, I’ve been focusing in on two things that are the most painful and damaging in my life right now:  fear and aloneness.  Really it may as well be one thing, because for me being alone too much is also rooted in fear.  So many times, I have thought to myself “I don’t want to be so afraid any more.  I want to stop listening to fear.”

How well do you suppose it worked?

I don’t want “to not be afraid” anymore.  What I want is to be brave.  Now that’s something I can chase.

Adventures

I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a quandary lately. Part of my daily routine now is to produce new writing, and it helps me hugely when I do, but I feel like I haven’t had much to write about. Nothing that feels very interesting to say, which probably means nothing very interesting to read about either.

A lot of the problem is that the most interesting things to write about, and I think to read, are stories. I mainly write stories about my own experiences. But lately, I haven’t been doing much. Well, I’ve been doing a lot of small things, but nothing that you’d tell a story about. Eating cereal for breakfast? Folding laundry? Sitting at the computer and typing, typing, typing? Good things to do. Not really great things to tell stories about.

I’ve been starting to feel a little bit squashed … on one side the pressure of not producing words, not putting anything creative into the world, and on the other not having anything to say that’s worth saying. It’s not a good feeling, stuck between those two things, it makes me feel anxious and distressed. But I’ve been at a loss about what to do.

What I really want to do is have some adventures, something to experience, something to write about. Except this is ME. I don’t do adventures. I’m a scardey-cat, remember?

Sigh. Being a scardey-cat is boring. You don’t get to DO anything.

What if there was an alternative to scardey-cat-ness, though? What if having an adventure was as simple and accessible as … getting up and having an adventure?

I’m not talking about moving to Ecuador or jumping out of a plane or challenging the vice-president to an arm-wrestling match. I’m not about to pretend that I’m suddenly very bold. But I am rather tired of sitting around waiting for permission to go have some fun, or instructions about how to do it correctly. I get so hung up on those things, and they haven’t actually helped me live better or feel better.

So I’m going to have an adventure today. I’m just going to pick something that I’d like to do, small enough that it’s not too scary, big enough that it’s something I would normally avoid.

I’m going to drive into Harrisburg (city driving is not what I think of as a good time) and take a walk along the river. It’s a beautiful, bright sunny day, and I’m going to go look at something pretty. Just because I can.

Adventure number one; here goes nothing.

Get to work

It’s been a bit of a weird day here. Last night I was feeling a little bit off, and fell asleep on my recliner trying to relax, and woke up at 4 am, and then couldn’t get to sleep when I went to bed because I’d slept so much already, and then I couldn’t get up this morning … when I did get up I skipped my routine stuff in favor of eating breakfast first, because it was late and I was hungry. But I ended up sitting with the book I’m reading well into the afternoon, still in pajamas, severely lacking in motivation to do anything else. That feeling stuck around for most of the afternoon.

When I was finally tired enough of sitting around to propel me into action, I did what I should have done in the first place: started at the beginning of my daily routine by taking a walk, then hopping in the shower, then doing all of the ordinary “morning” things that I had skipped (I didn’t have a second breakfast). I finally find myself at my computer and ready to do some work — late in the day, with much less time than if I had gotten here earlier, but here nonetheless. So today is giving me two important lessons, or rather two reminders about important lessons that I know, but occasionally forget:

First, stick with the daily routine. It’s here for a reason, and it really does help me feel better and get things done.

Second, it’s never too late to jump in and get to work, or to start taking care of myself, or to grab hold of whatever I’m putting off and just do it. It’s not useful to feel guilty about the delay: just get to work.