Tuesday 28 June 2022

Seeds in my mind

  Spring and summer are the seasons of growing. I plant flowers and sometimes herbs and vegetables. I try to pull out most of the weeds so there is space for what I want to grow.

I have been also paying attention to what I plant in my mind, or what others try to plant in my mind. Here are some of the seeds currently growing in my consciousness (and perhaps also in my un-consciousness.)

Why is it that the world of people often feels noisy, very noisy, but also lonely? So many opinions, so many emotions, so many experiences and things to say about them. But every so often, there's a person whose words resonate. I think it has to do with humility and honesty and being willing to share that vulnerability of being human and open to learning. What does that tell me about how I should be?

Water always flows downhill. So imagine a rainstorm, a babbling brook, a river, a violent storm, a sewer, a flood, a leaky faucet....all that water, all making its way to the ocean. It's going to the same place. That's how it feels to me when I start to see a pattern in my life.

Someone said this: "being like water is a metaphor for the principle of wu wei, which is sometimes described as "doing by doing nothing". Just as water flows downhill effortlessly, moved by the forces of nature rather than its own effort and volition, and simply goes around obstacles rather than trying to tear them down, one is advised to move through life in the most natural way that is harmonious with one's environment - the path of least resistance - allowing the universe to move you where it will." 

How many "solutions" do we accept that involve control and violence? Is it possible to have control without violence? (I am thinking about this and I can't think of an example. Other than maybe self-control). Why do we accept violence and control as normal? Is there another way?

Everything is temporary. Every material item, every thought, every feeling, every skill and piece of knowledge. Every relationship. Some last longer than others, but change always comes. How do I want to live my life with this knowledge of change and ultimately loss? Who am I going to be in 10, 20, 30 years (if so fortunate). What's going to matter to me at the end of my life, when I have lost or let go of everything I currently consider important and am about to say goodbye to anything that remains? (Which could be sooner than I think....nobody actually knows). 

Most people would not describe me as a quarrelsome or aggressive person. Probably quite the opposite. But, a conversation recently made me aware that I actually do quarrel with people often....in my mind. Just thinking of certain people or situations can cause a physical defensive reaction. It is interesting to become consciously aware of this. The person I was describing this to wrote (after expressing understanding and admitting to the same behaviour): "I try to reframe it from wasteful internal conflict to useful scripts to begin practicing enough that they become natural to say out loud." That is something to think about.

How often do I curse and why? I don't go around screaming epithets at people (not so far). I tell my children that it's not helpful or kind to call things "stupid." "All you are doing is telling someone you don't respect them or you don't respect the thing they have created. How is that good for you or anyone else?" But I do curse. I curse jokingly with my friends and colleagues (I use black humour a lot). I curse at aggressive or clueless drivers. In frustration, I curse situations I find myself in. Just hearing or seeing certain people's names is enough to cause an internal cringe and/or curse. What is this behaviour actually doing in me and in the world? What is the alternative?

The colours of summer are really, really beautiful right now. Greens, blues, golds, highlights of white. It is such a gift. 

Sunday 12 June 2022

Answering Lynnette’s question

A few days ago I happened upon Lynnette Horner’s blog entitled: “The Pandemic is Kinda Sorta Over. Have we learned anything?”

Her blog is not about case numbers or hospitalizations or anything like that. It’s about what people have - or haven’t - learned about themselves, and how they treat each other. To put it simply.

Lynnette’s question is big, and provocative. She does her best to answer it for herself. There is something very moving about a person honestly talking about the state of their mind and soul. I guess I can start by saying one thing I have learned from the pandemic, is how healing it is to interact with people who are willing to share and explore this vulnerability.

Lynnette writes extensively on how important it is to pay attention to what we are paying attention to:

To be “slow to judge, quicker to make allowances for people under stress, and more prone to turn to God than to fear and anxiety,” as Lynnette hopes she does, requires one to swim against that current of negativity. Certainly this is true in my experience. I also deal with a variety of challenging people every day. The good part is that I get lots and lots of practice. The less good part is that it does wear me down. I’m feeling quite exhausted right now: for over a month, actually. There are a few people that I have been really struggling to relate to positively. When I try to think of an alternative all I can come up with is “I’m tired. Too much!”

In some ways, the “end”* of the pandemic feels harder to me than the beginning. In my part of the world, there are fewer specifically Covid-related interruptions to life compared to last year. Almost all restrictions have been dropped. Whether or not one considers that a good thing, there has been more return to “normal,” and everyone I know has taken advantage of it, to varying degrees. They returned to recreational activities; they went to restaurants; they flew planes to vacation destinations; or they just visited friends and family more.

But everywhere people are worn out and worn down. Trust in everything and everyone is eroded. I dug a bit into that idea here, hypothesizing that trust is based in large part on tradition, convention and familiarity: we believe what authorities say because we have done so in the past and it mostly worked, and also they mostly say the same things. Covid-19 and the response upended that: it seemed like everything was questioned and done differently. There was an opportunity there: to do things differently and better. I know professionally, I have tried (and often succeeded) in improving my practice and relationships. But it’s hard (probably impossible) as an individual to overcome the systemic distrust. Like Lynnette’s daughter, I have witnessed people willing to just unload their rage and pain on the nearest target. It’s very destructive.

I have also come to the same insight as Lynnette: it is essential to be aware of what you are watching/viewing/listening to. Like her, I have become sensitive to fluctuations in my emotions, not (hopefully) with the result of becoming fixated on myself but to perceive how I am being affected by my physical, social and media environment. When I notice a lot of anger, despair or frustration it is a cue to switch my focus. Not to abandon the situation or whatever responsibility I have, but to adjust how I am interacting with it. This is not just about “self care”, though it is that. It’s also about being able to remain functional, responsive and integrated into my environment.  It’s about survival and the creation of reality.

Lynnette puts it more succinctly.

What have I been filling myself with?

  • Being a “joiner” and participating in real world community. Family, work, recreational, and online to some degree (but very conservatively: I ceased most social media activity in January 2021)
  • Depth reading and more writing and conversation. Avoiding the temptation to react impulsively, while paying attention to what the “big questions” in my heart are. (It gets easier with practice and encouragement.)
  • I have been deliberately exploring Christianity in the past two years (longer than that if you count not being deliberate). Lynnette Horner’s article is of course written from an Orthodox Christian perspective,  and many of the writers and podcasters I read/listen to share that faith. I have found it helpful. What does that mean? One thing is that the ideas stick at least partly in my mind on my worst days, and it can make the difference between swimming and drowning. Another is I am more alert to patterns in the world and how I am participating in  them. Perhaps most importantly it’s a reminder that I can’t and I won’t do everything on my own, and I don’t have to.
  • I am learning to give up the idea that I can or should control outcomes in the world. I try to act with good judgment and intention, more often than not. But after that it’s not in my control. Other people are not in my control. It is also not my job to punish or condemn them for not being what I want.** Something good about this approach: I have much less anxiety about being wrong. Often I am wrong, often others are wrong. It doesn’t stop me from doing some good in this moment.
  • I am trying to get in the habit of offering real assistance to people who are struggling. Not just words, but a meal, or time, or effort. I’ve also let people do that for me. It might sound weird but this is not always easy for me as I tend to assume that my assistance is not wanted or needed, and I fear giving offence or being rejected. This is part of learning to accept that we all actually need each other, somehow. We can’t always just buy our way out of every problem, even if we are lucky enough to have a lot of resources (and that’s certainly not a given anymore). Everybody will one day have a crisis where they need the person next to them, whoever they are. (A good reason not to flip out at that person, too, or judge them on something stupid.)
  • Because I’m doing my best to be honest, I have to say I also spend a lot of time thinking about my clothes and planning new outfits. I like to show up for my social, political and existential crises looking sharp, and Covid was no exception.***
I don’t know how to end this. Probably because it’s not over. Maybe this is actually a beginning. I never really know, except in retrospect. 50, 60 or 70 year old me (if I’m that fortunate) may look back and know exactly what was going on right now. I don’t have that perspective.

So I suppose I will just thank Lynnette, and everyone who has helped me so far, and also the people who have been difficult or in conflict (because in a funny way they end up having a part to play too) and carry on.

*I don’t know that it’s the end of people getting sick. Doesn’t feel like it: I have been sick A LOT, although not with Covid. But it does feel like the end of something. 

**One of my most horrifying and revolting experiences of the last 2 years was seeing how a mob behaves when they think they have justification to condemn and punish a person. I thought about it (if you can call such a process thought: it feels more like a kind of psychological death) and I know I can’t ever justify behaving with the same vindictiveness, not even to the worst in people. So I have had to look for a way of living that gives me a way out.

***if you could see inside my brain on any given day: 1/3 is thinking about spiritual and religious stuff, meaning-of-life matters. Because that is where I’m at. 1/3 is planning my next outfit. And the last third is just dealing with what’s coming at me in the moment.