Sunday, November 15, 2009

To B (or not to PhD)


What does that conjure up for you?

It shouldn't be an easy question. We spend many, many years in school, and very important things happen to us there. Some of my most enduring memories are of events and people from schools. Second grade teacher. A walk down the hallway that was a transfer to a different class. The six weeks my brother and I attended school in Kansas while we lived with my grandparents. Sixth grade "split" class (high sixth and low sixth all in the same room). My best friend, Cindy. I could go on. You have your own list of memories. Some good. Some bad.

But when we dream of school, it all gets very simple. Fear, anxiety, forgetfulness, failure. You've got to have had these dreams before -- you've totally forgotten to prepare for a test; you've forgotten to attend a class for the entire semester; you've arrived at school in PJ's.

I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, an image of a dream of school, and found an interesting one (see left) Adam posted with a discussion of these dreams and what they might mean to us once we're out of school. Ok. But I've been dreaming of school in a different way lately.

I had a dream near the end of May: I was a student at school in a building that seemed to remind me of every school I have attended and schools I have seen in other cities and countries. The classes were big and there was a big courtyard. There were a few people from the iSchool PhD program and a host of others whom I didn't know. It was formal education. The dream's emotional tenor was of anxiety, competition and a strange feeling of disconnection, even in the midst of a clearly social milieu. It was structured. Bells rang and classes started. I left my books out in the rain at one point. Two guys were fighting in the courtyard. It was like that -- unrelated scenes, vignettes and feelings just happened, all around me.

I headed towards a class that I wanted to attend, but not actually sign up for (i.e., audit), and sat down at the back of the class, but the professor refused to permit anyone to attend without registering. The refusal woke me from the dream.

I thought about the dream all the next day. And I keep coming back to it, again and again. Now that I am just 6 weeks from the end of the year I've taken off to mull things over, it's time to evaluate, and time to decide. Although I have always treasured learning, firmly believing that to live is to learn, somehow or another, the learning that we box up into chunks we call grades (K-16 plus graduate degrees), with classes and teachers who judge whether we learned what they thought we should, and degrees we are to acquire to enter different types of work we want to do, this learning does not appeal to me now.

Instead, the 11 months of my almost completed year off (to say nothing of the many other decades I've spent on this earth) make clear that learning goes on every minute of every day of our lives. The degree to which we seek it out, independently of formal education, characterizes us. We are adventurous, open to new ideas, explorers, curious, avid readers, eager to talk to people about what we have observed and thought about, or we are mired in routine, resistant to change, comfortable only with what we already know, averse to travel and uninterested in people who are different from us. It's a continuum of course. I'm somewhere on the end with those who like to learn, but I know that my interest in formal education is over. That presents a challenge, aside from the challenge that I'm actually in a PhD program at the moment. Formal education's packaged degree program provides a structure that learning in the wild doesn't. In the wild, there's no degree; no slate of courses; no forms to fill out; no templates for your progress reports; and no template for your terminal qualifying paper and dissertation. In fact, learning in the wild never ends. The journey is the destination. Sort of like life.

But more than this, learning in the wild makes no demand that you learn any particular thing at all (beyond what it takes to survive). You can learn that it's not worth it to sift through the granite gravel that got washed into the pebbled stream in your front yard by yesterday's wonderfully torrential rains, by actually trying to sift it and realizing that the effort outweighs the benefit, or you can sit on your deck and watch birds. You can construct detailed experiments and test hypotheses and write up your results and submit them to the public for comment, and learn even more about your results from those comments, or you can try a new recipe and see whether your childhood aversion to beets stems from their having been canned or whether beets just taste bad. You can delve into botany and learn about all the plants in the area where you live, or you can see what difference it makes to your garden to fertilize it every other week with fish emulsion and seaweed throughout the summer.

The question, "what is the point of this or that learning," gets you thinking about priorities, where to invest your time. But the question eventually collapses into "what is the point of this life," when one feels, as I do, that life and learning are one. "What do I want to learn in the next 20 years" becomes "what do I want to do with my life?" I still don't know what I want to do, but these 11 months have shown me that I don't have to know what I want to do to know that I am through with school.

I can see more clearly every day that teaching, research and service (education-style), or more simply, making a difference by sharing knowledge with others, in the hopes that either directly or indirectly, it will help them or their circumstances, is not the only way to make a difference. One can also make a difference by being a source of encouragement, a smile when its needed, or just an ear or shoulder to lean on. Indeed, one can make a difference by tending a garden. Someone no doubt tended the garden that Boris Vian stood in as a wind rushed through it. Many years later I can read his lovely observation that "[t]he wind cleared a path for itself through the leaves, and emerged from the trees filled with the scent of buds and flowers" (a rough translation from the french poem, L'Ecume des jours). The gardener probably never knew, but c'est la vie.

I have begun to see that the roles of teacher and student are, for me, part of being on autopilot. Being a teacher pervades my identity -- I have always taught, I think of myself as a teacher and I really enjoy it. Those sound like reasons to continue teaching. But I teach every minute of the day! In paying close attention to mental chatter this year, I find myself narrating my present moment experience, as though I am passing on what I know and observe to some invisible student, rapt student. I'm like on Twitter on steroids. What a revelation! Maybe the point for me isn't to pass things along right now. I am not expert at what I want to learn, so how could I teach it? And I don't want to spend any more time passing along the things I know already. It seems like the wrong choice right now. I'm not sure why. It just does. It will be a good exercise to stop teaching, both in my head, and in the real world.

I sense more clearly every day that the path I'm on will lead to recognition and acceptance that everything ceases. I visited my mom today and felt, once again, desperate sadness at how it is when you can't think straight, don't remember much of anything, can't make your hands carry out your wishes, can't see that well, and can't say what's on your mind, what's left of it. I still have a long, long way to go on the journey to come to terms with the loss that a disease like dementia inflicts. But if it weren't dementia, it would be something else. That is life in all its dimensions. Growth, expansion, exploration, creativity, and then contraction, decline, loss and eventually, death. Not regrettable. Just the way it is. Life and death are one and the same thing. Annie Dillard's splendid, Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek explores this phenomenal contradiction -- how can our world be so beautiful, and so filled with violent death? But no! It's no mystery. They are one and the same. Every week I get a little closer to accepting this, to not wishing it were other than how it is. I haven't managed to surrender entirely, yet. I guess I fear that I would scream out loud, or die of the pain if I actually totally accepted what is happening to her and what will happen to me and everyone I know and love, eventually. Who in their right mind would accept this if they didn't have to? Ah, but we do have to.

Two months after the "no doing school half-way" dream described above, I had another school dream, this one quite different .....

It started out being about other things (I was in a store, trying to find things that I wasn't able to find), but then I ran into a professor who asked me point blank whether I was going to continue in the PhD program. I hesitated and the professor quickly added, "We have other students that we would like to accept into the program to take your place." I answered that I had an appointment scheduled with a member of my committee. The professor responded: "Before you go, I want you to know that no matter what you decide, I love you." The professor embraced me very sincerely, very warmly and very affectionately. It was a very pure embrace, devoid of role, of selfishness and of ego. I just felt loved and accepted. The roles we had assumed as guide and student, and which had, to some degree, interfered with our relationship as friends and colleagues, dissolved. We were simply friends again, warm, loving, supportive friends.

I see the professor in these dreams as a projection of that part of myself that fears failure, rejection and loss. In the first dream, I feel that I must do what others want me to do, though I react out of conflict, emotionally, with resistance to their expectations. In the second dream, I accept unconditionally whatever I choose to do. I rest in unconditional love. Wow. I must say, it was a fabulous feeling. You know how strongly you can feel a feeling in a dream, well, the truth is, you can feel that feeling awake too. We all have our fears. We have our aims, our resistances, our anger and determination -- all driven by our egos. But we also have, at the center of our being, total, complete and unconditional acceptance and love. I can relate from that, rather than from the ego on the surface.

I have learned so much from school that it's impossible to value it all. It's priceless, in other words. But I simply could not have learned any of what I've learned this year from a book or in a class. There is no degree in this kind of thing. There is no graduation. And it won't get me a job. The knowledge just grows and deepens and expands, affecting in the end everything I know, do and say. What more could I want?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Memory cold as ice

"Erickson was born the first summer Dennis brought me to Santa Fe, so I know he was there when she was born. He was about a year old or so."
"No, my kids are both older than him."
"But I was only invited to her birth to take care of the kids, your first, and Erickson, so I know he was born before her."

"Do you remember where MaryAnne did her readings? Was it on the second floor landing, or the third?"
"It was the second. Our wedding party was on the third."
"oh, yeah. That's right."

"After that boat ride when Gary ran into the dock, I never got in the boat with him again."
"When was that?"
"Oh, it must have been around 1969. I know he's more careful now, but I just never get in with him."
"It's 2009. It's been 40 years. You know, I never actually heard anything about that wreck. I thought I knew everything about them during that time."
Thinks to himself, "I lived with them during that time. I'm not so sure that wreck you remember actually happened at all. Maybe it did, but why didn't I know about it?"

I've always thought of memory as a utility, a tool that I need to do my work, to be creative, to carry on an intelligent conversation. Comes in real handy when you need to read 20 books on a subject and synthesize their authors' points of view on a related subject. Fairly important if you need to draft a legal opinion. In fact, all integrative, analytic and synthetic thinking depends on a good memory. Learning from our mistakes requires memory too.

In August and early September I took some trips* that brought some of memory's other functions forward from the places where it works, often unexamined and even unappreciated. Memory is a utility, yes, but it's also the basis of who we think we are. We become our past, or rather, we develop an ego identified with our actions and feelings from the past. My friends could say about themselves, "I was a smart-ass in high school," or, "I opened a head shop in the late 60's." Their past is part of who they are today. *The photo above is of the sky over Ocate, New Mexico, a place where Dennis and many of his New Mexico friends hung out a long time ago.

But I also saw, over and over again, how shot through with holes our memories are, and even how absolutely wrong they can be. We make up things that didn't happen when we remember them "wrong." And we forget so much of what happened, inventing a past that never existed. In this fractured process, we invent a "me" that doesn't exist, except in our minds.

And there may come a point for some of us when we remember little of our own past. Not where we grew up, not where we lived when we were 30. Not who our relatives are, our friends, not even the name of the nice guy who lives in the room next door, with whom we take three meals a day, and who helps us with every aspect of those meals because we "remind him of his wife." Who are we then, when we have no memory as utility, no memory as who we are, when accuracy and details are no longer the issue, but simply whether we remember anything at all. Who are we then?

Why do we remember some details vividly but wrongly? Why do we forget some things that others who were there with us remember clearly? Why do our memories fail as we age? Good questions, but curiosity about those matters isn't enough anymore to take me away from the day-to-day of simply experiencing life and being in the present with everything that comes up, especially when what's coming up is how fundamental our memories are to who we think we are and how memory's functions are all connected by that thread of our remembered conception of ourselves, our thoughts and feelings that constitute our egos. We have a good memory; then we have a not so good memory; then we have no memory at all. We remember ourselves as helpless and afraid; we remember ourselves as wild and crazy; we remember ourselves as compassionate and loving; we remember ourselves not at all. We recall how we were in the 70's (maybe, if our memories can be trusted); we recall how we were in the 90's (again, maybe); sometime in the future, we won't remember any of this at all. If we identify with our memories, whether as utility or more fundamentally, as who we are or even who we think we should be, who are we when we don't remember anything?

A memory-less emptiness resides just one step away from annihilation, non-existence, or so it seems to me as I watch my mother's expression as she listens to music from the 40's. If it's clear that "I am this or that" ends with death, whether the death of memory, that is, mind itself, or the death of the body, when both mind and physical form die, there is reason to think long and hard about whether Buddha might have been right when he said it was a mistake to identify with ego, with what our minds construct out of our past experiences, our versions of "I am this or that." But it's one thing to recognize the natural consequences of identifying with something that dies. It's quite another to know that what dies is not really me, that "I am" is something distinct from "I am this or that."

So, when I saw and accepted that I remembered an event wrong, I was in that moment free to give up identity with "me," the whole constructed set of events, actions, thoughts and feelings. Knowing that my memory was wrong even once, and likely wrong a lot of the time, I could accept that I didn't really know what happened when. If I don't know the past and I am my past, I don't know me. But that realization only sets me on the doorstep of not knowing anything, Buddha's not knowing. Buddha accepts much more than the mere fact that the "I" of constructed memories does not exist: the "I am" that transcends the ego's limited view of "I am this" accepts as well, every moment, without judgment and without identifying with it or the events that take place in it. It may be too big a leap for me at the moment, but at least I can see the way one maybe gets there. I can imagine it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Slower than slow -- July in drought, heat, and recovery

So, July was pretty much slo-mo. Body just said no to everything. And who was I to disagree. I ceded all authority to natural intelligence. And here I am safe, sound, sane and fully recovered 7 weeks later, so clearly, it was the right thing to do.

And I thought it gave me a pretty good perspective on how lucky I am, usually, to be in good health. But then I got this note today from a friend who reported on a mutual friend's post-op recovery following her 5th recurrence of cancer (4 times brain cancer; 1 time breast cancer). "Count your blessings," she said in closing her note. Indeed.

I am finally ok with not knowing what will come next, not just not knowing, but not caring (ie ,not worrying). It's more exciting that way. I take some comfort in recalling the year I took off to travel in Mexico, Central and South America, followed a short time later by 2 years of sailing around the Gulf and the Caribbean. And then I took another year to apply to and get into law school. So, things happen, directions shift, without constant effort towards them, oh, yeah, let's see, I saved a little fortune cookie thing that hit this nail on the head: You don't have to know where a road leads to know that you're on the right one.

Just as our Austin gardens are in survival mode this time of year, especially this summer when we are in a drought that has gone on nearly 2 years, and have experienced more than 55 days of triple-digit afternoons, so the critters are, so the woods and fields are, so am I. Just being.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

View from the mid-point

I am halfway through a year of stepping back, of contemplation, of slowing down, asking questions, and being willing to hear the answers. I've had lots of help, of course -- the many people who have shared their insights about these questions by writing books and essays, and the friends with whom I've discussed it all, especially my friend Peg, who has been grappling with her own challenges without taking a year off, and is a source of inspiration. These six months have been nothing short of miraculous, in that slowing down has allowed me to drop the excuses that always cut short this kind of exploration in the past. I never have the excuse of not having enough time. I have plenty of time. (Photo CC licensed; credit: Photoantique)

But though I am encouraged about getting past old excuses, I haven't found what I ostensibly came looking for in the first place: motivation to pursue with passion some path I could roughly characterize as "my third career," or in more immediate terms, motivation to throw myself into some specific dissertation topic. Not that I didn't give that a good try. I had already focused on that for seven months before I decided that want of a topic wasn't the real problem -- want of something more general was.

Once I made the field of inquiry both broader, and more personal, I discovered many things that could contribute to my lack of interest in anything and everything. I was very surprised to find that one of those stumbling blocks could be self-discipline. It is very hard to imagine that I might lack it, because I've accomplished many things that sure do seem to require it, but as I examine those accomplishments more closely, I see that jobs, school and social obligations structured my time for me. I really didn't have to. Of course, I prioritized, and prioritizing is certainly a type of self-discipline, but it seems that my priorities were always, at least in significant part, about meeting others' expectations of me. Even when I push myself, that is, exercise self-discipline to accomplish more than I really think I can, it's at least partly to please, or more precisely, avoid disappointing, others.

Where, exactly, does this motivation to please others come from? And is there self-motivation unrelated to the desire to please?

Addressing the second question first, meditation can be self-discipline at the most elementary level. The only desire is to be awake, aware in the present moment. On the other hand, if I practice meditation to cultivate kindness and compassion or for any other purpose, am I not back to, at bottom again, pleasing others? Can one really have no other goal than to be awake at every moment? Actually, it's true that many Buddhist writers indicate precisely that: having any other goal besides moment-to-moment awareness is simply more ego involvement, more delusion, and ultimately destructive of the very effort one makes to be present. It's quite nuanced, this non-goal-setting. If you simply have as your purpose to be awake, everything else will follow. But if you have as your goal all the stuff that is supposed to follow, you fail the goal of desiring to be no more than awake. Almost like you must fool yourself into thinking you don't really have goals, while all the while having them hiding behind the "be awake" goal.

Ah, but that's where knowledge of the differing perspectives from which you can see come into play (books I read earlier this spring and commented on in earlier posts). The logical, linear mind identifies as goals things like enhancement of some skill or ability, or some aspect of self identified with the form of the body ("I want to be more [whatever]"). The mind that is simply aware sees those enhancements as illusory, temporary, and destined to be unsatisfactory in any event, in short, of no consequence. Before I learned there was another way to see besides the logical and linear, I always became disillusioned when I came to this seeming contradiction (don't wish for the result, just be here now and the result will occur) and gave the whole enterprise of meditation up. It just made no sense. Indeed. It makes no sense, to the ego, to the logical mind. It makes perfect sense to awareness, to consciousness.

I really want to know whether I can accomplish anything significant outside of school, work and social obligations, that is, outside of external motivations to please or avoid disappointing others. I developed bilateral pneumonia at the end of June, so I have even more time to think about where the motivation to please others comes from, in answer to the second question. No surprises here: fear is at its heart -- fear of failure, hell, fear of being anything short of perfect, because at bottom, the fear is that those who love and take care of us only do so so long we meet their expectations. When no one contradicts that interpretation of reality (easy enough if it's never expressed), it can become very firmly entrenched in one's psyche. Maybe this is normal socialization; it certainly was a logical conclusion for this child to draw, given my particular family, but it's not the only possible interpretation of the basis for love and caring. And adults do revise their childish views of the world and how it works. It's not that there isn't contingent love. It's all around us. But there is also unconditional love. As it turns out, seeing the difference is one of those consequences of building moment-to-moment awareness. So meditation helps to answer this question too.

Pneumonia is a secondary lung infection caused by failure to clear congested bronchial passageways. Things like excessive suppression of coughs, asthma, allergies, and taxing one's body when it's least able to handle it -- these contribute to the conditions that allow pneumonia to get started and take hold. The cure is antibiotics, and for an asthmatic, regular use of bronchodilators and other inhaled medications that reduce the accumulation of fluid in the lungs. And lots of rest. Takes four - six weeks to get back to normal. Peg dragged me to the ER. I never would have gone on my own. I had to give a talk, that's why I was there in DC, that and to visit with Peg. I ended up staying in the hospital three days. No talk. My husband had to come to take me back home, and the trip back took every ounce of strength I could muster. Now it's just rest and recover. And think about how I got myself into that hospital in DC, because I am in no hurry to repeat that performance.

I have another six months to continue practicing moment-to-moment awareness, observing the nature of reality, seeing what's important, what's not, and to see where it leads. No goals other than to be awake in every moment, or as many of the days' moments as I can. Certainly more than before, though that's not saying much. And focusing on the breath has a much more profound meaning for me now than it used to. If I learn nothing else this year, I am grateful for that.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Change: Only here, only now

Change is everywhere, at the center of every life process. The earth itself, like the universe, is inherently process and change. We celebrate changes: the seasons, the beginning of a new day, even the end of the day, milestones in our own and others' lives, learning accomplishments, completing processes, and going on to new things. We love the new and unusual. Our eyes pick out that which is different from the mass of same. We eagerly await new arrivals. New, new new. Up to a point. When changes begin to diminish us, ah, there we draw the line. Embrace turns to resistance. So it’s easy to accept some changes and almost impossible to accept others. The closer we get to changes within ourselves that we don’t like, the more complicated the whole picture gets.

We can change. Sure we can. We cut loose with a moment of spontaneity in an otherwise ordered existence, or we straighten up and take something seriously, we make new friends, strike up new relationships, and deliberately change for change's sake sometimes (rearranging the furniture). We make changes on our surface (I'll buy a new sweater today), we change our surroundings for awhile (I'll spend 6 weeks in France), we even change our careers. But try to change 'the way I am,' essentially, and you’ll more than likely find that "I" always seems to reassert itself, even if nudged from the center of our being occasionally. So why is it so hard to change ourselves? Or put another way, why do we cling so desperately to certain things, even when we don’t want to and know we shouldn’t, or even know that we can’t?

This spring I read several books on the brain, books about how we decide, how the various parts of our brains are different and how adaptable the brain is, about its chemical interactions with the cells of our bodies, the glands, and how all of that affects our health and the quality of our lives:

  • "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer (reporting on the relative value of using different approaches to knowing and deciding, in different situations)
  • "Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely (a behavioral economist who studies how emotions, and not logic, affect our choices much of the time)
  • "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," by Sharon Begley (about a meeting among scientists, philosophers and the Dalai Lama in India in 2004, in which the scientists explained their latest research findings regarding how what we do, including thinking, changes the brain)
  • "Evolve Your Brain," by Joe Dispenza (another of the plasticity books, this one nearly a textbook on the brain -- maybe a bit more than I bargained for)
  • “Stroke of Insight,” by Jill Taylor (detailing the effects on her perspective of having had a stroke at age 37 that killed parts of the left hemisphere of her brain)
  • "A New Earth," by Eckhart Tolle (connecting all this up with Buddhism, or spirituality more generally)
Each author seemed to be saying roughly the same things from different perspectives, with different emphases, and to differing degrees of complexity and detail. They explained and reinforced in a fascinating way the wisdom of "just noticing," that one practices in meditation. Overall, their perspectives and insights suggested that my experiences of sometimes resisting change, relishing other changes, and of trying unsuccessfully to change myself are pretty ho hum, that questioning the attitudes and beliefs which I may feel quite certain are "me" is essential and that, far from immutable, “me” is just thoughts, conditioned on past experiences, which I can turn on and off at will. I can think different thoughts, about different things, from different perspectives about the nature of being, and doing. The authors explained both why accepting some changes that happen to us whether we like it or not, and making other changes we’d like to make, can be so hard. But more fundamentally, they provided the motivation to do something about old, repetitive, and sometimes destructive thought patterns, and the certain knowledge that one can do something, that we’re not stuck with the neural connections with which we’ve saddled ourselves (and those around us) perhaps for a very long time.

You want change? You gotta be here now.

Topping the list of lessons learned is that being in the present moment is essential — both for accepting that which can’t be changed, and for change itself. The present moment is the only place anything occurs, so it's the only place change can occur. Being present quiets the thoughts that perpetuate habits, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and the other effects of our brain/body interaction that we take as ourselves, that we literally accept as immutable. We can't change if we can't be here now. So, that, apparently, must be the top priority: being here now. One must return to being here now a million times each day. It is not a steady state, at least not for those of us who spend nearly every waking minute being somewhere other than here now -- mostly in our heads, lost in thoughts about the past and the future. Meditation is simply practicing the skill of returning to the moment. Like practicing scales for pianists, practicing a serve, for tennis players, strength training, for those who need powerful muscles to perform some task. The real payoff is when you use the skill in the day-to-day of living your life. The pianist plays the piano; the tennis player plays a few games with a friend; the rock-climber pulls herself up a sheer rock face and sees that spectacular 360 degree view. Similarly, the person in the midst of simply living life recognizes that she is not here now: maybe she’s engaging in habitual behaviors, thoughts or emotions, tied to memories of events gone by or anticipation of things yet to come, but, once aware, she returns to the now. It’s that simple. Whatever physiological effects might accompany the thoughts, a surge of feeling, a bath of chemicals within the body, the tightening of muscles, a knot in the stomach, a change in heart rate, all dissipate and the body and mind return to resting state, to now. Thoughts cause physiological experiences. Not "your" thoughts. Just thoughts. Not you. Just thoughts.

The overlap of the authors' ideas with Buddhist principles enhanced my understanding of the concepts of our universal connectedness, our essential natures as parts of the whole, as not separate from others, from the earth we live upon, from the air we breathe. From this perspective it is possible to stop identifying with the thoughts, behaviors and feelings that we may feel are rock-solidly us, and immutable. That there is something in us that can simply be aware, that can observe the chemical and biological nature of thoughts, behaviors and feelings, suggests we transcend our transitory thoughts, our chemicals and our feelings.

The insight I gained into the dual perspectives through which all of us are able to see the world, resident right within our brains, the left and right hemispheric perspectives as one author describes them, makes the task of suspending judgment, linear thought and logic possible. And quieting judging, thought and logic and the voice that constantly rehearses, expresses and reinforces them is, as noted above, essential for seeing ourselves as connected, essential for accepting the present moment, and essential for change. It's the nuts and bolts of being here now.

The chemical, biological perspective shows what anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, depression and hatred do to our bodies and our brains. That certainly provides plenty of motivation to take on the task of dis-identifying, the possibility of accepting, and of changing. It is worth the effort.

And effort it is. No one says it is easy. But coming back to the present a million times each day is surely simple. It's not like you can screw it up. This piece of advice is repeated by all the authors I read this spring. And of course, Buddha said it 2500 years ago. Taylor's example of practicing the skills she wanted to relearn to regain her left-brain functioning illustrates the principle. It's at the heart of everything Tolle expresses. Dispenza's advice echoes the same point: we can change patterned thinking, including resistance, but it takes discipline and determination. One must return to the the task, to the present moment, again and again.

Ok, but how exactly does one be here now?

So, I read a lot of stuff. Poof, and it’s all gone. Memory falters. I need reminders that I can return to each morning, to help me wake up minute by minute throughout the day, to see the world through the right-brain perspective as well as the left, for example, to be able to choose compassion, forgiveness and love instead of fear, anger or rejection. It sure would be nice to be able to carry out my intentions, move beyond the resistance that interferes with accepting what is and taking appropriate action, to change counterproductive attitudes and behaviors, to be more compassionate, open, forgiving, and accepting, and less judgmental and attached to transient material objects and my preferred outcomes. Seems to me like a very tall order.

Practice, practice, practice: Formal, informal and real-life

Every author I read says be here now and accept, without judgment, what is in the present moment. Putting that into practice requires establishing new habits of seeing and being. You can't just expect that ideas, simply read, will take root and manifest in new behaviors by themselves. You literally have to practice seeing what’s happening from a different perspective. Lucky for us, life gives us different types of opportunities to practice: informal moment-to-moment awareness; formal practice (meditation); and show time -- when you are deep in the midst of some difficulty! The third is the hardest, but ultimately, achieving awareness within a challenging circumstance is the whole point, and doing so is easier if you have practiced informally and formally.

Formal practice

One can obtain staggering amounts of advice about how to practice formally, so I won't dwell on that here. Tolle provides six short audio meditations to get you started. Scroll down about 3/4 of the way on the page, Exercises for Your Awakening. But keep in mind what Tolle notes: formal practice is no substitute for moment-to-moment awareness. It's like practicing your serve, or scales, or strength training. It's a tool to improve real-life functioning, not an end in itself.

Informal practice: Moment-to-moment awareness

Moment-to-moment awareness is just what it says: being totally present in the moment regardless of what you are doing. In fact, it’s not about what you are doing, but how you do it. You can peel a potato and be there for it, or be a million miles away. You can take a walk and be completely present, noticing every sensory impression, registering how each footfall feels, how you are breathing, what you’re hearing, or you can be oblivious to it all and lost in thoughts. Taylor calls the state of moment-to-moment awareness "seeing from the right-brain perspective" because that's how she experienced that awareness -- only after certain parts of her left hemisphere were destroyed by a stroke. She gives the following advice for informal practice, moment-to-moment awareness, or, in her terms, seeing from a right-brain perspective:

When you feel you are out of touch with the right-brain perspective (consciousness or awareness), you can always return to it simply by being in the moment. There are many ways to facilitate being in the moment. You can ask yourself, "how does it feel to be here doing this?" In other words, get into your body. Feel your sense impressions, feel your life force, look around, take in the big picture, listen, taste, smell, identify what information is coming in through your skin, have fun with your senses. All sensory input registers as feeling. If you focus on how you feel, you are being aware; you are being mindful; you are here and now, in the present.

You can also consciously relax tense muscles to bring your attention to how you feel in the present moment.

You can walk in nature, sing, and dance to get yourself into the here and now.

To experience compassion, one can loosen attachment to our ego's inclination for superiority. This allows us to be more generous of spirit (compassionate). We tend to be compassionate with equals. Being compassionate is seeing another's circumstances with love (an open heart) instead of judgment (and its attendant emotional states, disgust, rejection, fear, anger, etc.).

To experience the joy of being alive, one need only be present. But your desire to be present must be stronger than your attachment to your misery, your ego and your need to be right. "Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?"
Tolle characterizes the same moment-to-moment awareness Taylor calls "right-brain" as simply awareness, consciousness, or Presence (being fully present in the moment). He has advice for informal moment-to-moment practice too, in addition to the advice on the page referenced above, keyed to the chapters of his book:

Cultivate awareness: While you look at a flower, can you sense yourself as the perceiving entity, as Presence? If so, you are being conscious of being conscious. You are being aware of yourself as perceiving.

Accept the present moment: Clinging and fear represent a rejection of what is, a failure to accept that things pass away. Sadness occurs when we lose things or people we love, and can't accept their impermanence or allow change to happen. There is a continuous coming and going of events, people, etc., and knowing that nothing will last helps you to enjoy the moment. Accepting, not judging, and not being attached to outcomes place you completely in the Present.

Your everyday life can pull you into unconsciousness. You have to invite a different state of consciousness into the daily routine, a state of Presence. Even things that you usually do as a means to an end, especially if you do a lot of such things, can be done with Presence, making them, as much as possible, into an end in themselves. The goal is to be absolutely present every moment. You are present if you can look at things around you and not label, that is, perceive without naming. Everyday events can be your vehicle for waking up. You can also focus on your body's reactions: inhabit your body. Being conscious of your body anchors you in the present.

Take as your purpose simply being where you are, doing what you are doing, fully aligned with the present moment. Thus, your purpose is not about what you do, but rather being conscious, being awake, true to now, aligned with the power of the present moment. From this alignment, you can achieve whatever goal you pursue.

Practice in small ways, all the time (look out the window without judging), and then when you confront a negative situation, ask yourself, "am I able to accept this moment just as it is?" If you can, you grow in Presence power. Acceptance is Presence power.

Accept; enjoy; be enthusiastic: If you are deeply ok with the present moment, you will find your power to deal with whatever it brings you. Do everything you do with at least acceptance. Ideally, acceptance becomes enjoyment and even enthusiasm. You start simply with being Present and noticing your feelings and reactions that are not actually serving any goal or objective you may have, but are merely making you unhappy.

If you have to do something and you can't even summon acceptance, you have to recognize that you will bring suffering to yourself and those around you if you continue to do that activity without at minimum, acceptance. On the other hand, when you are either accepting, enjoying or enthusiastic, your actions can bring harmony and happiness to your life and those around you.

Enjoyment is appreciation of all that exists in the present moment. This explains why wanting is unfulfilling -- its focus is on pleasure and happiness in the future when you obtain whatever it is you want. This leaves you unsatisfied with the present moment, which is the only place you can ever be happy, joyful and alive.

Enthusiasm brings creative energy to what you do and to the world. It is the desire for growth and expansion connected to the Source. If you bring positive energy to what you do, you can move from acceptance, to joy to enthusiasm!

So, you can practice being here now anytime, all the time, moment-to-moment. It’s like choosing to walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. After awhile it becomes a habit, and little-by-little, you become more fit, more able to endure, able to carry a heavier load. Same with being aware. If awareness becomes a habit, you can bring it to more difficult circumstances, not just the easy ones. Both Taylor and Tolle have strikingly similar advice for dealing with challenging moments, experiences we don’t like, wish wouldn’t happen, but can’t avoid. The same advice applies to situations we relish, however. Standing back in the midst of those is just as important, but our need to do so is not so acute.

First Tolle:

When you recognize negativity within yourself, you can choose to step outside it, by simply being the awareness observing the negativity.

Some of the negativity in life is our reliving (giving new life to) old pains. You can reduce the incidence of arguments motivated by old emotional pain by not identifying with positions ("my point"). You can catch yourself relating to someone or something in the present out of identification with old emotional pains from the past when you notice that you are reacting with an emotion that is out of proportion to the triggering event. If you notice these over-reactive emotions quickly, you can prevent them from triggering a cascade of thoughts that relate what's happening in the present to these old hurts (“this always happens...”), thus intensifying your emotional state and causing you to react to the present event from those past perspectives, instead of from seeing what is actually happening in the present. If you recognize this pattern early, you bring consciousness into the body -- you feel the emotion, the physiological sensations, etc. -- but you recognize it as a reaction to an old pain, being played out yet another time, in the present. That awareness is the beginning of dissolving the power of old hurts to perpetuate themselves in the present. You contain them through awareness.

He says that there is a common misunderstanding that acceptance precludes effective action, that if one accepts what is, one automatically concludes that it's alright, so there's nothing we can or should do about it. On the contrary, he counsels that complete acceptance generates positive energy, a certainty, that flows into the doing of whatever it is you choose to do in response to a situation. Your action comes out of the strength of acceptance, not the emotional weakness of neediness, resistance, anger, denial, frustration, or struggling. If you are listening and observing in the Present moment with an attitude of “I don't know,” in other words, you have silenced the chatter, stopped judging, and are just observing, seeing what is, you make a very different kind of decision about what to do.
Here's Taylor's advice for practicing mindfulness, or as she says, centering in the right-brain, in the midst of a negative thought pattern or negative reaction to an event:

  1. Be aware of when you have become mired in a negative thought loop. This is, in essence, putting your moment-to-moment awareness practice to work on a real-life problem.
  2. Focus on how the loop feels physiologically inside your body. How is your breathing, do you feel tightness anywhere, do you feel lightness in your head, is your stomach in a knot, are you shaking?
  3. Wait for about 90 seconds while you accept the physiological effects of this loop fully; it takes about 90 seconds for the judgmental, counter-productive, out of control, emotional and physiological response to dissipate.
  4. Consciously acknowledge the value of having a brain with the ability to think thoughts and cause emotions, but confirm to yourself that you are not interested in this loop anymore. Tell your brain to stop bringing this kind of thing up.
You aim for a balance between observing your neural, chemical, body circuitry and engaging in it. You surrender to it for a minute or so, then you let it drop.
Summing it up: Notice when you’re not here -- when you are in the past or the future -- and just come back to now

Basically both are saying, "wake up" in the midst of strong emotional reactions. Recognize that they are just thoughts, that they are not immutable ("oh, that's just me -- I'm that way"), that you have a choice about how you react to events in your life, and that you can choose to react from a much calmer and more nuanced perspective, the present. If you have practiced taking that perspective, that is, practiced silencing mental chatter, practiced seeing and accepting what is at this moment in everyday actions and in formal practice, rather than listening to the chatter in your mind translate what is through the filter of your past, your hurts, your attachments, your fears, your demands that things be other than as they are, you will be able to step to the right, as Taylor says, or become the awareness observing the negativity, as Tolle says, and decide what to do from a more conscious, less autopilot-reactive perspective.

For example, something might happen, you could think, “Here we go again... You always blah, blah, blah,” which will likely trigger an emotional reaction of some kind, anger, or resignation, or resentment. Normally, we totally identify with that kind of reaction: I am angry, or I am resigned, or I resent that.” But if we are able to notice the disproportion in the reaction to the event, this simple observation enables us to consider whether the thoughts and emotions might have been triggered by something old and deep, not by what actually happened in the present moment. You can walk away, focus on how your body is reacting, feel what the thoughts cause physiologically, acknowledge the ability to put 2 and 2 together and come up with ... way, way more than 4, but let the conclusion go. You can be in the present instead of the past.

Here’s another example: Have you ever noticed how someone you’ve known for a long, long time can say something in a group of people who don’t know him, that charms or amuses all of them but just makes you cringe? Is your reaction a little out of proportion to what was said? That’s it! You can ask yourself whether you might be reacting to old stuff, not in the moment, not here now. Want to change? Stop doing that. Notice when you do, then stop.

Friday, May 22, 2009


In french and spanish, vacation is plural: Les grandes vacances; las vacaciones. The word, vacation, might seem odd if you think about it. Vacating. Emptying. What is the essence of these vacations? From the way we all talk about them, and the traditions we have of pressing upon each other our mementos of them (our photos and slides, in the old days; our Flickr streams now), and how we remember them (specific scenes, incidents, people we met, things we ate), no one could be blamed for believing that they are in essence what we do to have fun, experience new places, relax, and meet new people. But that word, vacate, reveals their essence more deeply. What the grand vacancies are really about is what we leave behind when we take off.

I experienced this acutely this year as I planned my own grandes vacances. I have made a trip to Southeast Arizona at least in the spring, and for about 10 years, in the spring and fall each year, first to visit my Dad when he retired to Tucson, and then just to bird the incredible environments of the Sky Islands -- the Santa Ritas, the Huachucas, and the Chiricahuas. Google them. They are amazing extensions of the Mexican Sierra into the U.S. Sonoran desert. I typically stayed from 3 to 6 days, and, once the visits became centered on birding, I planned them with my girlfriend birding buddies. I always wanted to stay longer to experience the little mountain towns as places where people lived and worked, not just birding stops. But I never felt that I had time. Spring is so full of wonderful things to do at home, as April and May are two of our most beautiful months in Austin, before it starts to warm up so much that one wants to get away. And of course, there were the demands of my work, and later my school, schedules. But this year of "taking time off," this year of reflection, of stepping back, of Being more than doing -- this year seemed like the one to take the plunge and spend more time in the Sky Islands. Not just to bird. So I made a reservation at Casita Frontera in Patagonia for two weeks in the middle of April. (Photo credit: cobalt123; CC*BY*NC*SA; visit cobalt's wonderful flickr stream to see more photos of SE Arizona.)

I second-guessed that decision a hundred times as the departure date approached. What was I thinking? Two weeks in Patagonia in April? What was I going to do there for two weeks? But I didn't back out. I kept the date and continued to prepare to vacate. Then the day came and I left my cat and all the things I must do every day to accommodate her needs and desires and keep her out of trouble. And I left her as companion, soft fuzzy fur ball, cute kitten, warm snuggly thing. I left my garden in its mid-spring transition from bulbs to the perennials and annuals of summer, its need for constant monitoring, weeding, replanting, watering against the gradual heating up of the soil and the air, fertilizing, pruning and loving attention every morning as I have a cup of coffee and stroll around looking at everything that has changed overnight. And I left the garden as place of rest, relaxation, rejuvenation, contemplation and immense enjoyment of the wonders of nature. I left my job with its neat little projects, to-do lists and phone calls to return and emails to answer. And I left my job as identity, "what I do" when people ask, my life as a copyright attorney, my sense of being of use and of value. I left my house with its myriad chores that require constant attention to keep them from piling up and turning my house into a sloppy place I couldn't abide. And I left my house as nurturing space arranged to my liking and cool and warm and inviting. I left my kitchen where I bake, cook and brew up tea and coffee, stock the shelves and refrigerator, and deplete them in a breathing in and breathing out that never stops. I left my friends, well, most of them. A few were planning to join me in Arizona for several days at a stretch. I left my husband, who was busy with his two spring installations in Houston anyway and needed to focus on them, so it was just as well that I was off doing something else. And I left my mom, whom I hadn't left alone for two weeks in years, though she is now living in Assisted Living and ostensibly, has enough help to get by just fine without my coming by all that often and "checking on her."

In short, I left everything that I do routinely, almost without thinking, sometimes literally without thinking, on autopilot, not really in the present moment. Everything that keeps me doing all day long, the things that leave little if any time to just be. And I took off for Arizona where my time would be almost entirely unstructured, without established routine, and certainly no autopilot. I would decide how to be and what to do each moment, each hour, each day, as I went along. That's what the grandes vacances would be: a big vacancy in the daily doing.

Such a big vacancy could present itself as a gaping hole to be filled up with a million things that I think I have to "do" while I am "on vacation" or simply as space, not to be filled up at all, but left vacant, open for things like observation, breathing, walking and being present with the body and the senses -- really seeing the where and what of each experience, minute to minute -- being present and no more and no less. Les grandes vacances indeed.

It was incredible. It was so easy to meditate every morning, to exercise, to walk, to climb mountains, to practice french, to read and reflect upon books and videos I wanted to learn from, to spend time talking to my friends on the phone or in email, to eat simple wholesome meals I prepared myself, to take good care of myself (in the ultra-dry air of the desert), to listen to my body's wisdom about stretching and balance. Oh it was wonderful to be unplugged from all the things that demand my time and attention at home in Austin, to establish that I could actually drop unhealthy habits, institute healthy new ones, and most importantly, be present moment to moment at least sometime, a lot more of the time than I've ever managed before or since. And I had enough time with my friends who came to bird to practice being present in relationships, practice what I was reading about in A New Earth, My Stroke of Insight and other books about the brain and the power of our thoughts. It was sweet.

Then it was time to go home. It took only about a week for me to give up hope of integrating any of these new ways of being into my real life. The day-to-day just took me by the hand and off we flew through day, after day, after day. Autopilot reigned supreme. No time to be -- only time to do, do, do. It got worse when Dennis came home from three years of living in another city a week later. Very tricky, this re-integrating two lives into a shared existence, so it makes perfect sense that I might not have as much time for meditating and yoga. But there's nothing in the two-person day-to-day that precludes being present every minute. It's just that one so easily gets swept away by doing and gets lost in thoughts, worries, plans, actions and emotions, and forgets entirely to be here now, to be the observer of the experience.

But after a while I realized it was not hopeless, really. Two weeks turned into three, and then four, as I thought about how exactly vacating had helped me be present. Vacating's essential element was the absence of routine. The absence of routine seems to open your eyes, enliven your senses, and call you to experience your life in the present. What is extremely difficult in your normal environment, looking around you and just seeing, without labeling, categorizing, judging, planning, comparing, and riding off into a haze of chatter, is easy when everything around you is all new.

Vacating is not the only way to step outside routine and open to the richness of your life. I saw that I could start each day with a reminder to be present! If I got off on the right foot first thing in the morning, I wouldn't be so likely to find that the whole day had gone by and I had been on autopilot all day, that is, I hadn't been present a single minute. Changing life-long habits of unawareness and unconsciousness is challenging, even when you really, really want to. It requires patience and practice, practice, practice to recognize that you are not present. It's ironic: one must be present to recognize that one is not present. Or more positively, one remedies being unaware by simply noticing that one has been unaware. It really is quite simple. But not easy.

I reread summaries of what I had learned from the reading I had done earlier this spring, and began to apply what I had learned in the midst of the full catastrophe that life tends to be. I began to just be present, every once in a while, in doing *whatever* it was I was doing. That's all it takes. Being present is simply being the observer of your experience, your state of being, of interacting, of thinking, of feeling. Instead of merely being the experience, you are the experiencer. Instead of feeling anxious about a challenging chore or task, for example, being present is just noticing that you are anxious, noticing how it feels in your body, what it does to you, how you actually experience anxiety -- in short, grounding your awareness in your body, rather than in the thoughts that chatter incessantly in your left brain, the stream of chatter that is, quite literally, cranking out the chemicals that cause anxiety. It is the same with being present in the garden: noticing the myriad objects that exist in the garden in the early morning, slowly, mindfully sipping a cup of coffee, while you walk around and just notice all that is. That is being present for a walk in the garden. Presence is also not getting caught up in naming everything, describing it all, thinking through what you plan to do with it later today, what you did with it yesterday, or a conversation you had while sitting in the garden many years ago.

So, for now I'm using the experience of my day-to-day life, in which I am often caught up in mental chatter, planning, worrying, reacting, fear, anger or frustration, to wake up little by little. I count it a successful day if I woke up from unawareness (from identification with the chatter) a handful of times. I would be jubilant if I could snap to awareness in the midst of a powerful emotional reaction.

That is the ultimate goal of moment-to-moment awareness: to be able to act in the world out of a more balanced, centered sense of what needs to be done. Looking around the garden without labeling, judging and reacting (in other words, silencing mental chatter) is practice for the real-life challenges of looking at your options for action in any given moment with the benefit of the perspectives of all parts of your brain, not just your reactive, emotional mental chatter perspective. The more balanced perspectives bring to decision-making a sense of calmness that transcends "understanding." Sort of like a vacation without having to leave home.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

No barriers

Dennis and I have had a debate for about 8 years (since he started his formal art education). It involves the question of whether, if anything and everything could be in the circle that defines "what is art," would the circle have any meaning. In other words, doesn't the distinction between what is and isn't art disappear if you can't say that there is something outside the circle? Thus, the conundrum: can there be art without no-art? This weekend that whole argument, that whole perspective dissolved -- just disappeared into thin air.

Two friends and I drove to Houston for Dennis' thesis show at the Blaffer on the University of Houston campus. After the show, he, BethLynn, Stephen and I had a wonderful evening talking and talking and talking about what the gist or meaning of each student's work was, how it had come out of the three years of experience in the program, the types of critique each had received from the group and the faculty, and how effectively the artist conveyed what he or she meant to convey. But all the time the conundrum lurked beneath the surface for me. I had this nagging doubt that art had any meaning anymore if there were no definition, no logically constructed circle defining what is and isn't art (what's in and what's out of the circle). When we got home that night Dennis gave me a book to read, actually, he gave me an essay to read in a book called, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art. The essay, beginning on page 75 (and just amazingly coincidentally, available as a preview of the book in Google Book Search) was "No Title," by Marcia Tucker. And then I saw. And I kept reading.

Buddha Mind documents two years of meetings among a group of curators, art critics, educators, and Buddhist commentators in psychology, literature, and cognitive science, on the subject of the growing presence of Buddhist perspectives in contemporary culture. The essays simply explain that the same perspective I have begun to adopt, as best as I can, to view everyday life, each thing that happens around me, to me, within me, from a perspective of non-judgment, acceptance, no labeling, just seeing what is at this moment -- well, wouldn't you know it, that's the perspective contemporary art adopts. It embodies the artist's expression of that perspective. It takes as a premise that there are no barriers between what is life and what is art. In other words, there is no circle. There is no definition. And I stopped insisting that there had to be one.

My, BethLynn's and Stephen's consternation over Kristin's paintings illustrate the two perspectives: the logical, analytical, language-based perspective that seeks to understand art through labels, through critique, and through comparison and value judgment, and the silent, reflective, meditative perspective that seeks to understand the work through its subtle suggestion of truth, its reflection of an observation about existence, life, being, doing, even non-doing or non-being. Kristin had painted one large purplish canvas on a wall by itself and four moderately sized canvasses that hung in a straight line across another wall in the first gallery we entered at the Blaffer. They caught our attention right away. The four smaller ones were simply different shades of blue, each one. We all reacted the same way: Is this her thesis work? Three years of graduate school and this is what she feels best represents her accomplishment? Wow. Discussion of her work at dinner helped a lot, of course. Dennis explained what she had wanted to convey, how she worked, and even that one of his critiques of her work had been that perhaps she hadn't chosen the right medium to express what she wanted to express. But the bottom line was that there was no way to appreciate her work except through slow, non-judgmental contemplation and *seeing* what was there, what appeared after awhile that you hadn't noticed before, and what it "was" after all, as opposed to what you thought about it after a glance across the room crowded with people. Geez, we could not have been farther from the essence of her work if we had been viewing it from across town or from another state. We just didn't see it as the invitation to contemplation that it was, because it was "not art" to us and we had dismissed it before we even really gave it our attention at all.

Marcia Tucker's, "No Title" connected our dinner conversation to Buddhist contemplation more firmly, and other essays elaborated the connection further. Her paintings are (again) simply (it's always "simply") a reflection of the state of the sky as indication of the state of life in its totality. The work is a way to recognize the transience, the ephemera, the no boundaries, no barriers, no self, in all phenomena. How could I have missed this? It's that I dismissed it so quickly.

It's that the purpose of art has evolved from self-expression (which itself was an evolution from earlier purposes) to expression of the formless, the timeless, the selfless, the Buddha mind: not knowing. You can't really experience her work with labels though. You can talk *about* it. Just like you can read *about* swimming. But reading about it or talking about it is not experiencing it. Reading about swimming is not swimming. And talking about Kristin's art is not Kristin's art or experiencing Kristin's art.

Marcia Tucker noted that we don't spend enough time actually looking at artworks. We want them to grab us and tell us what they are about. We want the label beside the piece to explain it. We don't want to slow down enough to see "through" the lens of the work, rather than just see the work as a physical manifestation. But art is a window, a perspective, a way of seeing. Artworks are not an end in themselves. How could I have missed that?

I missed it because I was seeing from my (left-brain) analytical, logical, definitional, labelled and labeling perspective, and it just doesn't "get" contemporary art (like it didn't get compassion and oneness and peace and non-judging). Until recently I didn't even know that I had another perspective from which to view this world, and the expressive works in it. Not that another perspective exists "out there" somewhere, but that I *have* another perspective, residing in my own brain, and always have had. I just needed to access it. And I have. Actually, just having been convinced that it's there opened the door. It is very hard to see what we don't know exists. But if we know it exists, it's easier to relax enough to see it, or through it, in this case. So, I see Kristin's art now, even though I am on a plane flying at 500 miles/hour from Dallas to Tucson. I see it vividly and can't stop seeing it. But I don't think about it so much. I don't label it. I just "see" it and know what it says to me about the timeless, formless and impermanent.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

March -- incredible month

What a windy, sunny, rainy, warm, cold, but always fabulously beautiful month March was this year, so filled with insights! I hit my stride in March, taking full advantage of this year off. I dropped entirely the pursuit of anything other than knowing myself better. And I completely, totally, and thoroughly slowed down. That has been the real key to enabling a state of openness to seeing things differently, and seeing beyond the perspective that I have adopted over 57 years of life. Reading, discussion with others, and reflection play an important role, but it's catalytic. It is on the surface, relative to other efforts I have made this month. Remembering, writing down and analyzing my dreams, formal meditation, recognizing the fleeting nature of resistance to doing certain things, paying attention to the physiological aspects of emotional states I experience, and just being present more of the time, moment-to-moment -- these are more deeply satisfying and mark a real departure from intellectual understanding, towards knowing and accepting reality.

I discovered a tool and learned how to use it: the utility of recognizing and respecting my right-brain perspectives on reality, while maintaining respect for the importance of left-brain functioning. In a healthy mind, neither can be dismissed or even discounted. I put this tool to work and experienced amazing insights.

For example, this month I remembered how fearful I was as a child of doing anything wrong because I could see pretty plainly how people related to my brother, who in fact did do, just about everything, wrong. But more importantly, I connected a subtle tendency to hold my breath once I begin to do just about anything, to this little fear of failing to do it right. This leads inevitably (and quickly) to panic, which makes me want to stop doing whatever it is I am doing. It only registers consciously as resistance to the task. It takes a lot of energy to keep up the task (fighting the panic) while not breathing. Until recently, I was unaware of what was going on, registering only the resistance. Now, seeing the process clearly, I see that it's much simpler just to breathe. The panic goes away, the urge to abandon the task goes away, and all that's left is the task and me, and no resistance whatsoever. I get a lot more done with a lot less energy.

Love is contingent. Think about that. That is simple and irrefutable in our world. We see evidence of the truth of this everywhere. But it's also irrefutable that we are the potential for unconditional love. Just as we are the potential for compassion and forgiveness. Can fear keep us from participating in the flow of unconditional love? Fear of losing it? Wow.

Which brings me to attachment. Grasping hurts. Trying to hold on to something, anything, attaching to an outcome or result, believing that we are what we do -- all of these are a source of great pain for us. So, whenever I feel pain now, I look for the source of it in attachment, and gently let that go, if I can. You have to start small here. I'm not trying this with my mother's care, except in small ways. I haven't gotten to the biggest attachments (to life going on forever in perfect health), but it's very clear to me that the same exercise that applies to the little attachments applies to the big ones too.

Anger, frustration, anxiety all get the same gentle observation. When I experience them, I look for the source in an attachment of some kind, either to things being a certain way, or to things not being a certain way (attachment or aversion).

Basically, every little thing that happens, every feeling I experience, all day long, offers an opportunity to explore the truth of the assertions I've been exploring in others' writings, that the life we lead, the normal life, is not the best way to find peace, satisfaction, fulfillment, love, or to know the truth.

But, I began to branch out a bit from the fundamental left-brain, right-brain distinction that Dr. Taylor describes to learn more about brain anatomy and functioning, and the connection between what we think, how we feel and the parts of our brain that function when we do. I'm reading or have just read "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer (reporting on the relative value of using different approaches to knowing and deciding, in different situations), "Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely (a behavioral economist who studies how emotions, and not logic, affect our choices much of the time), "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," by Sharon Begley (about a meeting of scientists, philosophers and the Dalai Lama in India in 2004, in which the scientists explained their latest research findings regarding how what we do, including thinking, changes the brain), and "Evolve Your Brain," by Joe Dispenza (another of the plasticity books, this one nearly a textbook on the brain -- maybe a bit more than I bargained for). Connecting all this up with Buddhism (or spirituality more generally) is "A New Earth," by Eckhart Tolle. This is really a fairly plain-English account of what Buddhist writers explain in more esoteric terms, though Tolle is careful to emphasize that the principles he's explaining have their correlates in all the world's "religions." But, to the extent that they are in fact religions, he notes that they have sort of lost the main point and become rigid and self-serving, "egoistic" in his terms. Buddhism in particular does not claim to be a religion, but it too can be seen as having become rigid or at least some sects may have. All of these books are extremely interesting and I can't imagine how I could ever have read them if I hadn't taken some time off. They are just not like anything I've ever explored before.

I am reminded every day, especially since both March and April have given us such fabulous weather this year, how special a gift to oneself some time off can be. Time off, to, among other things, slow down, is absolutely essential to growth and change, at times. But for me it is not sufficient. I also need latitude to explore that which has been, for whatever reason, outside the limits of my life so far. These new worlds (for me, they have included traveling for a year in Mexico, Central America, and South America, sailing for 2 years around the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and now, exploring aspects of being other than intellect) open new realms of inquiry and new realms of wonder. It's like life is fine, putting one foot in front of the other, doing what everyone else is doing, being a part of normal daily life -- but not always, and certainly not forever.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Just like that; perspective shifts to the right

"Time's up. Put down your pencils."

You remember the feeling, don't you? You're in 5th grade; you are taking a school-wide standardized test; all the instructions are delivered, wooden, word for word as the test dictates. The pressure is on; you must perform; you must do your best. And then, just like that, it's over. You go out and play.

And just like that, my intellectual pursuit is over and I'm going out to play. Indeed, 20 years is quite a long time to devote to the cultivation of a particular type of thinking, a certain point of view, a certain understanding of the world and my place in it. Now I feel free to cultivate a new type of mental, emotional and psychological functioning, an alternative point of view and a different understanding of the world and my place in it. The need to change perspectives crystalized for me as I read Dr. Jill Taylor's, "My Stoke of Insight." Dr. Taylor experienced over the course of a few hours what she described as the equivalent of Buddhist Nirvana, because she suffered (at 37) a left-brain hemorrhage that left her unable to speak, to understand speech, to understand anything about numbers or math, to move, to recognize where she ended and everything else started, even to know who she was or anything about her past. This was "quieting the mind" all at once and completely. But while those functions shut down, her right-brain continued to function perfectly and, in fact, treated her, for the first time ever, to the perception of herself as a fluid, connected to the universe, and to an experience of absolute joy and non-judgmental acceptance of everything and everyone. Upon reading about her experience of the stroke and her effort to reintegrate her left-brain functioning (which took nearly a decade) without losing her right-brain point of view, I realized that the awareness, peace and tranquility, the compassion and openness the Buddhist texts speak about are all simply a perspective on the world, on life, and on living that is present within me, a perception I can experience at any time because it's actually how my right-brain perceives things, at this very moment and at every moment. It is just that the dominance of my left-brain reduces the right's expression of this perspective to a subtle nagging sense of dis-ease with the analytical point of view that dominates my thinking and my actions. The right-brain is the little voice that says, "be more generous," "listen, just listen," "it's not good or bad; it just is," and that I routinely ignore as I let other thoughts and feelings, including ego, fear, anger and resentment, manage my decision-making. I hear the right-brain, or I sense it, but I turn away from it. Starting a little over a week ago I stopped ignoring it. I found myself instantly able to see the world, my place in it, my relationships to friends and family and my tasks and chores, even my conflicts and challenges, in a completely different way.

For example, this right-brain point of view has changed how I see my mother and myself as we walk together down the path with Alzheimer's. It changed how I felt about making a trip to Houston to deliver Dennis' motorcycle to his studio (an arduous and expensive process we have undertaken four times now, as we move the motorcycle sculpture to locations for shows). Suddenly it was just 'what we were doing' that Wednesday. It had no aversive quality. I was freed of any kind of resistance, and full of energy and happiness all day.

And most amazingly, it helped me to articulate for myself at a much more basic level than I had imagined, the choice I have been gradually edging towards, without realizing it, since last summer. The inability to find any dissertation topic for inquiry that interested me enough to devote two years to it, and more recently, any topic that interests me enough to devote an hour to it, to say nothing of the rest of my life, was merely the reluctance to continue to intellectualize, period. It is just time to turn away from that. I took up law to challenge myself intellectually, to earn enough to have choices later in life, and to join a respected profession. I accomplished and enjoyed that. It is now time to turn to what has been missing from intellectual pursuits -- emotion, open-heartedness, connection, compassion and love. It's simply time to turn to other things. How could I be so fortunate as to come across this book that perfectly framed the problem, and the solution I have been seeking below the level of verbal articulation? My friend Peg says that its my personal dawning of the age of Aquarius: Jupiter and Mars are aligned and I can expect these kinds of insights. I think it is, as well, that Dr. Taylor's explanation of her experience was understandable to my left-brain in a way that Buddhist texts have never been. It's as though Buddhism's explanations were too far beyond my understanding for me to bridge the gap. Taylor's explanation was the bridge.

When a Buddhist writer says that we are one, we are all, and we are peace, the left-brain entertains those assertions as statements of fact and quickly discredits them. "We most certainly are not one. What does 'we are all' actually mean? And we are peace? Please." Taylor set the stage right from the start to allow us to step around this reflexive negation of her experience. She does not assert that the left-brain must accept what it can never perceive. Rather, she asserts that the right-brain ordinarily perceives the world this way, by nature. It is not possible for the left-brain to see us as one, whole, all, and peace. But the right brain sees nothing else. The challenge is no longer to convince your left-brain its life-long perceptions are wrong -- merely to convince it to take a break so you can see your right-brain's perception for yourself.

Caring for my mother, for Dennis, for myself, my friends, cultivating openness, compassion and a loving heart, doing what I know is the right thing to do with my time and my energy, these may well take hard, hard work over a long time, but at least I am convinced now, in a way I have never been before, that they do not represent a state of mind to "achieve" or "develop" at the high cost of the typically futile effort to break habitual patterns of understanding, but merely a state of mind existing in my right brain, right now, to recognize and to listen to, to let express itself in my days, weeks -- in my life. The perspective is already there and functioning. It requires only that it be recognized and released from left-brain's dominance. It needs a chance to at least be part of the view, maybe even to dominate at times.

All this is not to say that intellectualizing has no place in a healthy, happy, effective life or that I will never pursue intellectual life again. Far from it. I place immense value on my intellect and can't imagine not having and relying on it a million times each day. But I have put so much effort into nurturing my intellect for so many years, that my right-brain has simply stagnated by comparison. The left-brain can take a rest, chill out for awhile, so that I can nurture right-brain perspectives and begin to see what I've been missing. Balance is ultimately what I'd like to have. Dr. Taylor worked long and hard to regain her left-brain functioning, but she determined from the start of that process that she would not attempt it at all if it meant losing what she had gained from experiencing her right-brain's perspective while the left shut down. She had recognized in a deeply profound way that despite her brain's having shut down important functions, she was undamaged. I paraphrase here her description: In the absence of my left hemisphere's negative judgment, I was simply a being of light radiating life into the world -- a cellular masterpiece -- perfect, whole and beautiful, just the way I was. (Ch.6)

This was not a platitude or cynical consolation. She saw herself this way, at the core of her being. Who would want to lose such absolute certainty about the nature of who and what you were? Who would not want to gain it? Similarly, I have no desire to cultivate right-brain functioning at the cost of left. I'm convinced, however, that it's time to shift focus and go from there.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Nursing home

Stop it. Stop putting this off. Just get in the car and go on over there.

So, I get in the car and go on over to The Gardens. Trying not to be so distracted on the way that I wreck my car, I focus on driving, which I can still do. I think of everything like that now. I think, "Wow! I can still do this! I can type. Wow! I can see. I recognize letters and I can spell."

I arrive and walk unassisted into the building after entering the code (which I remember) at the front door. I turn left at the hall 10 and walk down to my mother's room. I knock and enter. It's dark. She keeps the blinds closed all the time. I hate that. Why do old people keep things all closed up? She used to always open the drapes and curtains in the morning. Not anymore.

The rooms smell funny. It's hard to describe, hard to characterize. I hate that smell. I look around for what might be causing it but can't find anything obvious. It's just, maybe it's just the way old people smell.

She's always there. She's either asleep on the couch under the down comforter (she's always cold, she says), or in the little kitchen or in the bedroom trying to do something that she can't really do. Her hair is never combed anymore. She always looks like she just woke up. I try to comb it but it's winter and the static electricity just makes it impossible to manage. It just flies out in fine, straight flight from her little head. She is really skinny now, like she was when I was a little girl. Probably 95 pounds, if that; 5 feet tall. Very petite.

We chat a little while and then I start looking around for what needs to be done. There are always lots of things all messed up. There are clothes in the wrong places -- dirty clothes in the trash can or laying on the chair, rarely in the clothes hamper. There are clothes in the bottom of the closet. She can't hang things up anymore. She's got little snacks that she can't open so I put some of the contents out on a plate for her by the couch. I water her plant, the one the church sent over for Great Grandma George back in 1956 when she had a stroke. I check to see that the bed linens and towels are clean. I straighten the rug; straighten the paintings; arrange the chair, the basket, the side table.

I check to see that the clothes she has on are right for the weather; that they are right-side out; front in the front, that they are clean; that she's had her shower; no scratches or bruises. If necessary, I help her get her shower or get her into clean clothes. It's almost always a very frustrating struggle. She hates to be confronted with what she can't do, even obliquely.

We chat a bit. I tell her some news. She tells me some news. I hear the complaints; I hear about what she's given up on lately because she doesn't care about it anymore. The truth is usually that she can't do it anymore. I love her so much. I love who she is, what she's been through, that she's a survivor, a teacher, pragmatic. But I hate this.

"I'm ready to go. I would like to walk out in the parking lot and be hit by a car," she says.

"Mother, what are you talking about?"

"I don't really like it here. I wish I could just die. I'm ready to die."

"But Mother..."

"You don't know what it's like to have no hope that anything good will happen to you."

I just stare at her, incredulous. "But Mother, you are dead. We both are. We're waiting for next life."

"Oh, I didn't realize that," she says with a smile, that "oh, now it makes sense" knowing smile.

"Well, you used to realize it. You just forgot."


"It's so cold here," she says again, her voice trailing off.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Politics, economics and lightbulbs

Nearly finished with Friedman's Flat, Hot and Crowded, and I was amazed to see that near the end he actually says that we need to be China for a day, so that we can dictate certain things (like China dictated an end to thin-film plastic bags) and then be America the next day to implement and enforce our China-esque dictates. He is just as pessimistic as I am about the effect of the entrenched dirty fuels industries on our ability to do what needs doing -- those things will take many decades, rather than many years. We may not have many decades to make the changes we need to make.

I also reread Law, Economics and Torture, by James Boyd White, soon to be released as a book, along with the other conference proceedings with which it was presented about 2 years ago in Ann Arbor. It is an excellent and very thought-provoking essay. Although he doesn't talk in terms of Congressional inability to get things done that are clearly and unambiguously in the public interest (like ameliorating the worst effects of a global melt-down), he identifies handing over of governmental power to "the market," that is, to market actors, these same entrenched legacy dirty fuels industries who will slow down our dealing with the problems described in Friedman's book, as fundamentally undermining democracy. Lessig would say, "you think?"

These two men present interesting perspectives from which to consider the debates this weekend over the competing versions of the stimulus package making its way towards signature by the President in a little over a week (if he gets his wish). The House version does not profess the current wisdom: that government is the enemy; that tax cuts (ie, disempowering the government) are the answer to everything; that businesses given more money to do what they do best will "save" the economy and our country from this current economic crisis. Of course, those who firmly, sincerely believe this, do not accept that these ideas are responsible for getting us into this mess to begin with and cannot get us out of it.

The Senate version is cleaned out of all manner of spending and beefed up with tax cuts to take spending's place, but it will get the 60 votes needed to pass without a filibuster. And we all presume there would be a filibuster if there were not 60 votes. Some, maybe many, Republican Senators would be more than happy to use whatever power they have to push their belief that government spending is bad. McCain, having been beaten badly in the Presidential election, nevertheless unabashedly introduced a 400 billion dollar alternative, more than likely mostly comprised of tax cuts, which Republicans unanimously endorsed. Nothing more clearly demonstrates the battle of ideas that is going on in Washington this weekend. How can it be that not a single Republican has the slightest doubt in the truth of their vision when their policy choices (diminishing government as much as possible; handing over as much control as possible to the economic sphere, to executives who have no responsibility to do anything other than show a good next quarter) are so heavily implicated in our current debacle? White might suggest that the reason is that they are the direct beneficiaries, each and every one of them, of that transfer of power to economic actors. It has or soon will make every one of them very, very rich. And rich is the height of achievement in America now.

Well, there's little I can do about my old-school Republican Senators, Hutchison and Cornyn. I've sent emails to both of them. They are quite vocally opposed to the plan. So, not to shift gears too quickly, but, back at the casita, in a tiny effort to walk the walk, I signed up for Austin's GreenChoice energy plan, increasing demand for renewables and locking in a voluntarily higher price for our fuel for electricity for the next 5 years. Should have gone for 10 but I had a hard time explaining even 5 to my husband (D: "Can we get out of it?" G: "I don't want to get out of it!" D: "Did you even see a contract?"...), who, as our fiscal conservative, sees any additional expenditure (no matter how much of an "investment" it is) as a bad thing when we, along with everyone else, are nervous about our financial futures.

And I bought 20 new compact flourescents to change out the bulbs we use the most. I didn't change them all out yet because I wanted to experiment with the soft-bright-daylight varieties of bulbs. Each of these gives a different "color" of light and a different amount of lumens at the same watts, so they are not interchangeable. I want to test them out for a week or so and see which works best for overhead, for reading, and for indirect room lighting. Then I'll buy more and finish the job. I got a great deal on them. At Home Depot they were all on sale, on average a little over $2.00 each (buying 4 and 2 to a package, depending on the watt size), but with City of Austin rebates for EnergyStar items, the price for 20 came down to just under $1.50 each, including tax.

Already I'm finding that the "soft white" is the best for just about everything. I don't like daylight (very blue, very weird looking). I don't know about the one in the middle yet (bright white). I am trying it in a lamp beside the kitchen table where I do some, but not much, reading. At 60 watts equivalent, it may be too little for reading, but the color is not as weird as the daylight variety.

Next, on to the big-ticket items: AC, heating and laundry.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Try being conscious for one whole day... it's harder than you think

I am reading Flat, Hot and Crowded, by Thomas Friedman, his follow-up to The World is Flat. I'm reading it on a Kindle, as an experiment, and I posted a little review of that experience on Scholar's Space. I'm only 1/3 of the way through it, but the book already has me fired up. It focuses on the relationship between our politics, our addiction to oil and the environmental consequences. It's as much a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth as to his own World is Flat. It's probably less effective than Truth in that it's a book, not a movie, it's Friedman not Gore, and Gore already settled the issue of whether we can afford to act like there's a debate over the reality of climate change (we can't). But it's quite effective for me personally, because it makes clear that policy change at the highest levels is job one -- individual action alone will never pull us out of this tailspin. And besides, I think the heart of the book is yet to come, in his proposals for what to do about it all, which Truth didn't really tackle.

Policy change and political leadership is vital. I'm on board. Obama makes me hopeful that the world has a chance. But individual and small group (one might say fringe group) action has been the only option for decades now and there's no reason to slack off. Tree-huggers and recyclers (when recycling wasn't a curb service), vegetarians and natural and organic foods producers, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, etc., all have played their parts in bringing the nature of the environment consequences of our actions to public attention. So have lawsuits to stop ill-advised governmental action. But the time for environmentalism as the opposition has long passed. Friedman believes that national, international, indeed global environmentalism is the only way we're going to save everything else -- our religions, our politics, our economies, our philosophies, in other words, ourselves -- because we're quickly approaching the point where the changes we've already set in motion will become unmanageable. Adapting to the magnitude of change we'll see will be impossible, not just for polar bears, but for us, the masters of adaptation.

But governments usually won't act when action requires tough choices that will not go over with an electorate, because getting re-elected is the politicians' job one. So, is failure "baked into the system" as Friedman describes inevitabilities? Wouldn't a benign king be better able to reorient the American people than a democratically elected government? Perhaps. But it's also true that if the governed themselves demand the actions and are willing to do what's necessary, because they understand the consequences of failure to do so, not just for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren, there's hope.

At this point, in month two of my extremely cool year off, I can easily devote a day to environmental consciousness, to see what it means to be unconscious about energy use and the consequence of my choices for the environment. I can note all the ways my choices waste resources, exacerbate environmental degradation, ignore my responsibility to future generations. I can see where I don't even have choices to be responsible. I think you have know where you are before you can map your route to somewhere else.

So that's what I did yesterday.

I'm still reeling from what I learned. I should have held a clicker and clicked every time I noted that something I did could have been done more consciously or not at all. The number would have shocked. And I think of myself as fairly aware and conscientious. I'm almost ashamed to put this stuff down on paper, er, I mean, in digits (ah, digits instead of paper -- another unconscious choice?). But I will.
  • Lights on when there's plenty of natural light in my house.
  • Lights left on when no one is in the room.
  • Blow-drying my hair when it dries just fine by itself.
  • Devices left on when I'm not using them (Kindle, for example).
  • Charging a device longer than it needs to be charged.
  • Backing up my MacBook every hour instead of every day or even every week. Is anything I do that important that it needs backing up every hour?
  • Leaving the heat on for my cat when I leave to go to work.
  • Going to work.
Ok. I need to explain that last one. I telecommute most of the time. Everything I do for the Libraries, just about, can be done remotely. I only work 10 hours a week. But I think it's important to go to the office at least once each week for 4 or 5 (ie, almost half) of my hours. Here are the extra things I consumed because I did not work at home:

Approximately 1 hour spent in the bathroom and bedroom getting ready (lights, hot water, extra heat), 8 mile commute in car that gets 24 miles/gallon, parking on campus (increasing demand for land used for parking), turning on 3 lights in my interior, windowless office, 8 mile commute back home, opening and closing electric garage door. We could quibble about some of these things, around the margins, but really, I wouldn't have done most of this if I had just thrown on some clothes, come downstairs and sat down at my computer and did the same thing I did in the office. I would have dressed warmly and kept the heat at the same temp I left it at while I was gone (65). On the other hand, I got to see people I attended a meeting at the iSchool; I bought some Girl Scout Cookies; I went up and down 4 flights of stairs about 6 times (I did not take the elevator!!!). Face to face is a good thing. But it costs a lot and we don't think much about that.

Things I wondered about as the day wore on, but don't know the answers to: What kind of fuel was Austin Energy (and UT?) burning to give me my electricity? Where did it come from? Do I have a choice to ask for clean energy? Can I pay more for it if it costs more to produce and deliver? Is eating a Lean Cuisine for lunch more or less destructive than heating a can of soup or making a salad of veggies from California, Mexico and Florida? What about my breakfast? How is my yogurt made? My granola? My honey? Where did my computer come from? Where will it go when I don't want it anymore? What about our new "single stream" recycling service? Is it really recycling everything we put in that nice big blue recycling can?

Enough consciousness for one day. Now it's day two. I decided to continue for the whole week, maybe the whole month. That will give me time to investigate the answers to some of the questions my actions raised yesterday.

It's so fabulous to have a year off. It gives me time to start small in the search for an effective use of my time. There is an awful lot I don't know about environmental conservation and how it fits into the global economy, and into domestic and international politics. Friedman's book makes clear that we need action at the highest levels, but I know in my bones that you can't expect support for that action from people who have no idea what you're talking about. We don't understand how or why we use energy, or even why we should care. I'll focus on that this month.

Trying to change the way our government thinks about our willingness to make sacrifices for the children of the future or trying to change the way we think about those sacrifices so that we can elect people who will make the tough choices -- it's all indirect. Everything is indirect. There is no direct path to environmental salvation. The political web is like the environmental web - extremely complex. No matter what I do over the next 20 years, it's only going to be a small thing, a tiny thing, but so long as I am engaged, that's the most I can do."Every difference makes a difference." I just don't want to be a part of the problem. Or, I want to minimize the extent to which I am a part of the problem.