Spend the Afternoon

Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you. (Annie Dillard)

I only have a handful of books I would deem “my favorites”. Near the top sits Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Here are a couple paragraphs – slightly edited (which I’m always a bit hesitant to do for risk of weakening her point).

Annie Dillard says:

“Thomas Merton wrote, ‘There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.’ There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end.”

“It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down . . . and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. They world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright.”

“Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have ‘not gone into the gaps.’ The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time . . . The gaps are the clifts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between the mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into gaps . . . Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap . . .

“This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

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Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. 1974. Harper & Row Publishers.

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“Listen to Your Body.” (But I Don’t Know How!?)

In the 21st century, it’s proverbial wisdom that we should listen to our bodies. We see it in articles, it’s what our doctors, therapists, friends, pastors, and yoga instructors tell us. I’ve encouraged this as well, having written about the mind/body connection in some of my other posts. It’s generally good advice. The problem is: Some of us don’t know how to listen to our bodies.

Here’s a bit of my story. I ignored physical and emotional pain for many years (while putting on a happy face). While I was generally happy, I still had a lifetime of being told it doesn’t matter how I feel — and I certainly should never express “negative” emotions. So, when people began to encourage me to listen to my body, these words had little meaning.

But finally this idea began to connect, but I still had to learn how to listen. Here are some things I’ve practiced in order to learn to listen to my body.

  • Yoga: Ten years of practice has been invaluable in connecting body, mind, and breath.
  • Writing Down How I Feel: This simple, magical act of writing down (repeatedly) how I feel gives new perspectives. Once the feelings or situation is on paper, I can process with remarkable clarity.
  • Gaining a Broader Emotional Vocabulary: Fear, for example, may be a vague word. But this fear could be apprehension, or anxiety, or a real threat, or worry, or panic, or a lack of confidence, or timidity, or overthinking. Precision in language brings clarity of thought. (A bird is a bird until you call it a cardinal.)
  • Emotional Mapping: Strong emotions activate and deactivate parts various parts of the body. By seeing these emotions on a “body atlas”, I was able to train myself to identify what emotions I was feeling. Shame, fear, anxiety, anger, etc. all affect the body differently. (For an example of the “body atlas”: Click and scroll to page 2.)
  • Sharing My Story: Of course, this should be with someone we trust. We don’t owe “just anyone” our stories, but sharing them with someone we trust brings self-understanding – even if they never say a word or advise.
  • Recognizing My Personal Power: I had little childhood training or role-modeling in how to manage the complexities of life. I was taught to ignore physical and emotional pain. I was taught problems were unsolvable and meant to be endured. Add certain elements of “Christianity” that equate self-care with selfishness and we can learn to feel helpless. But we are not! Recognizing our personal power embraces the idea that our problem-solving potential is much more advanced than we realize. We just need a bit more practice.

Thanks for reading and take care of Your Self.

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Finding Greater Happiness by Directing Our Attention

A Life of One’s Own: Part 7
One of the most influential books on my life is Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own.1 Milner was a British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, she published her findings.

Milner says her search for happiness seemed like “an ever-receding horizon” and, at times, she said she “felt a little overwhelmed with the difficulties of my enterprise”. This is a reminder that making progress in things like happiness and psychological well-being can take time, effort, and practice – but it does work. Milner provides some starting points:

  • How We Perceive Influences Our Happiness. Milner writes, “The first thing I noticed was that in certain moods the very simplest things, even the glint of electric light on the water in my bath, gave me the most intense delight, while in others I seemed to be blind, unresponding and shut off, so that music I loved, a spring day or the company of my friends, gave me no contentment.”
  • We Can Cultivate Our Perception by Writing Things Down. Writing does several things. (1) It gives clarity to an otherwise vague experience. (2) It enhances the experience. (3) It allows us to notice subtle shifts in how we perceive things. “Particularly was I struck by the effect of writing things down. It was as if I were trying to catch something and the written word provided a net which for a moment entangled a shadowy form which was other than the meaning of the words. Sometimes it seemed that the act of writing was fuel on glowing embers, making flames leap up and throw light the surrounding gloom, giving me fitful gleams of what before unguessed at.”
  • We Can Control Our Perceptions – At Will: “So now I began to discover that there were a multitude of ways of perceiving, ways that were controllable by what I can only describe as an internal gesture of the mind.” She goes on to say that we have a “self-awareness” or “I-ness”. This “I-ness” is the core of our being. “This core of being could, I now discovered, be moved about at will.” “Usually this centre of awareness seemed to be somewhere in my head. But gradually I found that I could if I chose push it out into different parts of my body or even outside myself altogether.” Perception is more than thinking. It involves our body and all our senses. Milner uses music as an example of how we already know how to do this.
  • Music: If I keep music in my head only I will shortly be “absorbed in the chatter of my own thoughts, personal preoccupations” and lose the connection to the music altogether. If we push our awareness out into our bodies or even outside our bodies (like at a concert), our perception of the music changes and enriches the quality of the music. I know what she means. For example, I was listening to Fiona Apple’s song Shameika2 this past summer when the music took over. I don’t think I was dancing down the street, but it certainly felt that way.
  • Observing: While watching gulls Milner says, “My idle boredom with the familiar became a deep-breathing peace and delight, and my whole attention was gripped by the pattern and rhythm of their flight, their slow sailing which had become a quiet dance.” You see this way of perceiving in children. Our year-old granddaughter will pick up the sound of a train from a half-mile a way. It’s something I don’t notice until she points it out. She’s aware of the train. She knows it’s a train. She mimics the sound of the train. This awareness brings her joy. We knew how to do that once. We can relearn it.
  • Physical Activities: Milner describes playing Ping Pong. “For I had been brought up to believe that to try was the only way to overcome difficulty . . . And trying meant frowning, tightening muscles, effort. So if ping-pong was difficult. one must try. The result was a stiff body, full of effort, and a jerky swipe at the ball, until someone said: ‘Play with a loose arm’, and I tried, unbelieving. At once the ball went crisply skimming the net to the far court, not once only, but again and again, as long as I could hold myself back from meddling. What surprised me was that my arm seemed to know what to do by itself, it was able to make the right judgements of strength and direction quite without my help. Here the internal gesture required seemed to be to stand aside.” Milner says, “But one day I read somewhere that one should learn to become aware of all one’s bodily movements.” She adds, “I found it was not just a momentary effect, but it returned whenever I again managed to hold my interfering brain in leash.”

These are the starting points of how to use a “simple gesture of the mind” to direct our attention. Milner further explores how she would use this “gesture of the mind” to spread the arms of her awareness toward greater perception, recharge her body when exhausted, and engage life instead of just thinking about it. I will likely cover those things in future posts.

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley. All quotations is this post are from this book.

2Fiona Apple. Shameika. Fetch the Bolt Cutters (album). Epic Records. 2020.

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The Great Reversal

If we distill the original Christian “gospel” to it’s essence, it’s this: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Of course, “Caesar” becomes a “fill in the blank”: “Jesus is Lord, not __________.” The core behavior of the Christian faith is to love one another. The central character trait of the Christian is Humility.  Lordship, love, and humility are interrelated. The deterioration of any one of these erodes the others.

The Great Reversal
If, we as “Christians”, reverse the gospel message — “Caesar is Lord, not Jesus”, we will also reverse the core behavior of love and the central character trait of humility. We then discard love and justify hatred, violence, and xenophobia. Humility succumbs to the arrogance that “I have the truth” and those holding alternative political views are evil.

The Great Deception
A “great deception” occurs when we say we believe paragraph one, practice paragraph two, while becoming more and more convinced we’re practicing paragraph one. 

Note: Obviously, many people who do not claim to be Christians are loving and humble. The problem I’m addressing is casting aside the central elements of our faith, deifying a political leader, and making a political agenda a sacred text – and then placing this all under the umbrella of Christianity.

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Naivety

Thank you naivety for failing me again. (Laura Marling)1

I grew up in a part of the city, and at a time, where “street smarts” were essential to survival, especially if you were a small kid with a smart mouth. Some of the adults around me were untrustworthy as well — abusive, neglectful, and/or predatory. I learned early in life naivety was dangerous and it was essential to read every situation for hazards.

In my early 20s, I began going to church and attending bible college. I did my best to live out “Christian values”. I assumed others were doing that as well (and most did). I also had the privilege of working for organizations with strong values and ethical leaders. These ethical contexts had significant advantages over what I grew up with, yet they also lulled me to sleep about the necessity for a new version of street smarts geared toward adult life. While most people were trustworthy, perils lurked inside and outside some of these organizations. Naivety was dangerous.

Naivety is particularly dangerous anytime people are trying to retain or accumulate some form of power, especially if they see you as an obstacle to that power or a means to their ends. Robert Caro, biographer of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, writes about power. For Caro, power doesn’t always corrupt, but it always reveals.

“Really, my books are an examination of what power does to people. Power doesn’t always corrupt, and you can see it in the case of, for example, Al Smith or Sam Rayburn. There, power cleanses. But what power always does is reveal, because when you’re climbing, you have to conceal from people what it is you’re really willing to do, what it is you want to do. But once you get enough power, once you’re there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he’s doing it. With Robert Moses, you see power becoming an end in itself, transforming him into an utterly ruthless person. In Passage of Power, I describe speechwriter Dick Goodwin trying to find out if Johnson is sincere about civil rights, and Johnson tells him, I swore to myself when I was teaching those kids in Cotulla that if I ever had the power, I was going to help them. Now I have the power and I mean to use it. You see Johnson wanted to do all along. Or at least a thing he wanted to do all along . . .” 2

Note Caro’s insightful observation. For people to accumulate power they have to conceal at least some of their true intentions. Those true intentions may be for greater good or they may be self-serving. But, there is always more going on. We need to being paying attention.

We can and should trust most people, but naivety is dangerous and can cost us nearly everything!

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1 Laura Marling. Album: Once I Was An Eagle. Song: Saved These Words. 2013. Label: Virgin. Producer: Ethan Johns.

2 Robert Caro. Working. Robert A. Caro, Inc. Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

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