Integrity

Integrity: noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

In the documentary* Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, a health worker talks about the integrity of traditional people who inhabit the high Himalayan desert. The villagers, she says, take care of the land and water. They know not to throw rubbish in their waterways. In fact, there is no such thing as rubbish, because everything they gather is used to the fullest.

“See how good the villagers are?” she says, contrasting their lives with the decline of values (along with air and water quality) after this remote region of India was developed.

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Ladakhi woman, photo via Pixabay, Creative Commons license

The film shows how the Ladakhis’ quality of life deteriorated after roads linked pristine “Little Tibet,” as the region is called, with the Indian plains. Ladakh had been a cooperative, sustainable society, based on traditional Buddhist values and the principles of interdependence. But once subsidized products, Western ideas/images, and tourism hit the region? It all changed rapidly.

Small farmers struggled to compete with lower-priced items trucked in from elsewhere. Villages dwindled as young people left their ancestral lands for paid employment. People began competing for scarce resources, where before there had been plenty for all, even with a brief four-month growing season and precious little rainfall.

With competition came enmity for “the other,” as insecurity became the new normal. Ethnic tensions, crime, and poverty, which had never before been an issue, began to taint the larger culture.

Then there were those waterways, which all became polluted around the cities and towns (where more and more people lived in housing developments completely disconnected from water sources.)

You could say it became harder to have integrity, both in terms of ethics and in terms of wholeness/soundness. And this is the state of much of the world, wherever global consumer culture has taken over.

What struck me about the film—even more than the clear contrast of Before and After documented by the venerable Helena Norberg-Hodge—was its demonstration of what human nature really is.

Were the villagers “good”—as in “better than” westernized society with its throwaway mentality and penchant for soiling everything worth protecting? Thinking this way puts such behavior on a pedestal.

But integrity is not some snooty, hard-to-reach thing involving self-sacrifice and personal pain. It is about wholeness, about choosing to act in ways that are aligned with our highest path and purpose.

Looking at footage of Ladakhi villagers laughing and singing as they help their neighbors harvest grain, you don’t get the sense that they are having hard time adhering to lofty principles. They’re simply acting in a way that makes total sense, that preserves life.

In other words, they live in a culture that nurtures alignment with true human nature, which wants to express itself through collaboration and interdependence—with other human beings and with the entire natural world.

Our culture is skewed to greed and self-interest, but this is not “human nature.” How hard is it to approach wholeness in a fractured culture? Really damn hard. You have to be willing to swim upstream, to pay attention, to make countercultural choices.

We have been taught to think that humans are inherently selfish. But voices like Norberg-Hodge challenge that notion, and tell us that we’re looking at humans in an artificially warped setting. Take away the subsidies, the dehumanizing images, the denigration of simple life with its wholesome collaboration, and something else might have a chance to emerge. Something based on a sense of belonging.

Until that day, we have to nurture a consciousness shift within ourselves and each other, toward alignment with our truest integrity.

*Note: See my earlier post about Norberg-Hodge and the need for relocalization.

A New Framework

Over the last number of years, I’ve noticed that my usual driven way of attacking my life has not worked well for me. If I were a car, I would have had my engine set to rev even at idle.

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Photo by proby458 (Paul), via Flickr Commons

At some point I realized that the goal-oriented way I was socialized—that all of us in the Western world have been socialized—actually made things harder. As someone with many projects/passions/interests, I got a rush from setting goals and planning out steps. I loved putting target dates on my calendar and making out lists. (Still do!)

But when it came right down to it, being fueled by adrenaline was not good for my health.

Then there were all the times I fell short and beat myself up, or ended up needing to move all my targets around because I missed one.

That old system started to seem incredibly wasteful, as I got in touch with its cost, and looked at the results. Could I get to the same place with greater efficiency, ease, and joy?

I couldn’t figure out exactly what to do differently, but I knew the word “goal” had become tainted for me. Even “setting intentions” seemed dicey. I started to lean toward words like “commitment” or “pledge” to define what I had decided to do. And yes, I still wanted take action in service of a commitment to myself or others. (I still have many many things I want to put out into the world.)

What to do? I didn’t have a new framework in place that worked.

Penney Peirce’s book Leap of Perception has given me fresh perspective and an alternative path to explore. Willpower, she says (the heavy foot on the gas pedal) is old school, because it assumes that we are outside of All That Is, outside of what we want to bring into our lives. She calls intention “attention with willpower added,” and declares the addition unnecessary, a defunct habit.

But if we experience ourselves enfolded in with everything, part of a holographic universe, creation is a matter of soft attention. Our next right action emerges based on moment-to-moment nudges that invite a resource/experience/project/etc. to form. It happens not through force, but through connection.

Others have talked about this, including Martha Beck—how aligning with what wants to be born allows it to emerge in effortless partnership with you. But I never quite got it till now: How resting in the present moment, paying attention, holding a vision gently, taking inspired action—all come together in bringing something into form.

In my recent Full Attentional Living series, we did an experiment to feel the physical difference between applying force and universal love. As Martha Beck demonstrates in this video, the latter is monumentally stronger.

 

It may seem like Jedi-level stuff—connect to Flow and melt your “opponent’s” resistance!—but anyone can experience it by tapping into a sense of unconditional love, perhaps for an animal companion.

And knowing that, why would I think I need to continue exercising my willpower to power through my tasks?

More Kinds of Beauty

I’m happy being a little bit behind-the-times when it comes to pop culture. OK, I’m really really out of it. There are times when friends’ Facebook posts completely mystify me. Most current films, shows, games, musical groups etc. are not really on my radar. I don’t have cable, or Netflix, or Spotify. I rarely go to the movies.

For entertainment we get DVDs from the library, and we watch our favorite PBS shows on the membership passport website thingy. With subtitles. I might be a little bit old in that regard, though I like to think I’m a woman in my prime.

I guess I sort of live under a rock? A rock made of writing and yoga, home life and books, plus a certain fringy kind of work that totally charges my battery. Weird kid rides again.

But now Pink. Pink is on my radar. Pink, I know and love.

Come to think of it, I know none of her latest stuff. No matter. Here she is talking (to her daughter and all of us) about courage, and art, and opening people’s eyes to more kinds of beauty. A sister Weird Kid. Have a listen if you’ve ever felt like you’re swimming upstream.

 

From “Me too” to “We All”

Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.

If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.

One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.

We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.

I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.

Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.

Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?

What is the psychic toll?

And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?

(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)

My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?

What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.

Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.

Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.

Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.

It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.

20170928_095742 (768x1024)I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.

And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.

Rock Will Wear Away*

I find it helpful, in such fraught times, to consider the largest frame possible. Last week in the desert of southwestern Utah, I learned about erosion, about the effect of water and wind on rock.

From time to time erosion is sudden and dramatic: a rock calves from a cliff and crashes down.

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Erosion made this arch in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Mostly we don’t see anything happening. The snowmelt in the crevasse, the wind whistling through a canyon, the creek wearing a groove deeper and wider. These forces go about their work of remaking the landscape, without our taking much notice.

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Virgin River continues to shape Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.

There is much we don’t see. The news fixates on big tragedies. The commentators argue their points. The politicos fluff their feathers and brandish their big sticks. Watching, we develop a picture of humanity warped by our brain’s negativity bias and strengthened by the media’s wish to hook us hard.

We don’t see the kitchen table conversations, the neighbors organizing, the hands touching earth that might tell a different story.

It is a function of my extraordinary and undeserved privilege that I am able to go on vacation at all, let alone visit national parks and be at peace in nature. When I think of the inequity that my life is predicated on, it makes me squirm. I don’t think I’m complacent or lazy, yet I have the choice to turn it off, turn away, where others don’t. What does this say about me and my life, my work?

Specifically: Is it OK to pursue creative projects that seem to take eons, at least for me (as we speak I’ve just gotten my manuscript back from my editor and am preparing to dive in again) while social activism goes wanting?

Stephanie Smart’s Dragon Mystic stone reading recently gave me a clue to how to think about this. She uses stones as allies and sources of wisdom. For my mini-reading, I chose a blue purple jasper stone. Her interpretation, in part:

You are like the water in the river bed. You are powerful enough to change the shape of a stone. Yet, you do it in your subtle calm nature. Just as the water slowly flows along in the stream bed…

Trust your calm powerful nature. You are just as much of a change maker as the person on the stage. Yes, YOU ARE A POWERFUL CHANGE MAKER. You, who can change the shape of a stone. You may not ever see the effect of your words or actions, but trust that you are changing the world.

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Water in the streambed of Taylor Creek, Kolob Canyon.

Here’s what I know for sure: I want to shine a light as bright as possible. Because where does the balance tip? If I feed anger and violence even in my own soul, by ripping into this one small being, I fuel the violence in the world.

In the desert I took photos of lichen, that curious symbiotic amalgam of fungi and algae. Lichen is small and unobtrusive, yet it has the power to turn stone into soil, over time. Here is a collaboration among species, quietly altering The Way Things Are.

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Lichen, Kolob Canyon

*The title is borrowed from an old song by Meg Christian and Holly Near.

Contracting

Recently I spent some blissful days by Crystal Lake in Michigan, thanks to a dear friend’s hospitality.

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This was the sunset that greeted me on arrival. Photo by Julie Stewart.

The reason for my trip was ostensibly research in nearby Traverse City’s 19th century mental institution. My original plan was to spend just a night or two in the haven of my friend’s company and then head out. (On the way home I wanted to tour a Michigan farm that specializes in teff, on assignment for Acres USA. And since the farm lies halfway between home and Crystal Lake, it made sense to find lodging midway.)

But it turned out that the teff farmers were unavailable during that time, so my grand plan fell through. And I’m so grateful.

I needed those restorative days and nights to rest, integrate, and incubate. After touring the asylum as planned, I turned to my project with a fresh eye. I wrote in stints between riding my friend’s bicycle, lying in the hammock, walking along the lakeside, floating in the crystalline water, and other general deliciousness.

In the mornings I sat at the end of the dock and faced into the wind. The wavelets on the lake and the constant breeze made it feel like I was on a boat, moving steadily forward.

I thought about how we can draw to us exactly what we need, even if it feels like we’re sitting still. If we’re aligned with what wants to be born, it’s less about effort than showing up and paying attention.

Driving home, I saw this truism played out again when an audiobook I was playing refused to work. I finally gave up and turned on the radio, just in time to find a program on NPR that spoke exactly to a dilemma I’d been working out in my story.

Now, this was in a semi-remote part of Michigan, where very few stations were coming through clearly. I marveled that I could hear this piece all the way through to the end as I drove along between the evergreens. The station faded just as the next story began and I came to a well-placed rest area.

When I got back in the car, I tried the audiobook again. You guessed it: This time it worked.

It struck me that this synchronicity was a symptom of alignment, proceeding straight from my placement at the end of that dock, where I had given myself the gift of sitting still.

I forget this all the time. Part of me still believes that I have to make things happen. I was taught to keep on pushing, no matter what. Never mind that time and time again—say in a client session or on a writing jag—I find a larger truth. The “I” that I so cherish steps aside for a bit and lets something bigger take over.

When I came back from Michigan, I longed to sequester myself with my writing. I took over the guest room with its sweet view of the garden out back.

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I have been spending some time each day there immersed in my work, it’s true. But I still long for more. As the magic of my little Michigan expedition wore off, the usual obligations and distractions started to intrude. I have found myself overbooked and overstimulated.

Earlier this week I dreamt of coaching a pregnant woman through labor. When I woke, I realized that I am in the midst of a contraction. I have thought of “contraction” as a negative, as in “contracted state” opposite “expanded state”—but I understand now that I need to honor my need to contract. I see that turning inward is critical to the process of labor, which is really about so much more than active pushing. I need to allow a natural rhythm to flow.

And I need to pay attention, so I can be ready for those helpful tidbits that come my way as I appear to be sitting still.

In order to cultivate more quiet in my mind and spirit, I plan to sign off social media for the better part of August. This contraction requires that I evaluate every invitation and activity carefully before saying yes. I might not blog much. But I’ll be back.

Microbes: A Love Story

A few years ago my (former) dentist messed up—jabbing a spinning blade into the inside of my cheek while putting the finishing touches on a filling. Yes, I yelled.

She said to her hygienist (after shoving gauze in my mouth, and sort of apologizing), “Let’s get her set up on antibiotics.”

I said (as best I could around the gauze): “No.” Shaking, stunned, but clear.

“But you know your mouth is full of bacteria, and the risk of infection…” She began to lecture.

I realized I was not afraid of my own bacteria, and that I trusted my immune system. I made her understand that I did not want to take antibiotics. No thank you.

Fairly huge moment for someone who had struggled to rebuild her health for so long, who had been subject to catching “everything going around.” I don’t know when exactly it shifted, but I didn’t mistrust my own body anymore.

Among other issues, I had battled candida overgrowth for a decade or so, and had rebuilt my gut flora by consuming vast quantities of sauerkraut. I did NOT want to wipe out the friendly little beasties who had recently recolonized my body to good effect.

At home, using a natural mouthwash that burned the gouged-out place like blazing heck, I spit blood into the sink. My cheek had already begun to blacken and swell. I spent the evening holding my Triple Warmer* meridian points to return my nervous system to its hard-won state of safety and calm.

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Actual shot of my poor swollen jowl the night of the “incident.” Later my lips turned blue at the corner. It was a good look!

Before bed I whispered to my reflection in the mirror, to my swollen cheek, to my wise cells and crafty microbiome, “Thank you for knowing what to do. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for protecting me from infection. I trust you.”

My body responded by healing up tout suite—and further rewarded me by no longer requiring a medication I had begun tapering down.

It might sound wacky to some, but the body responds to our love and care, and I believe that respecting our microbes is critical. I’m now reading I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong, and finding all kinds of fantastic information in its pages.

It is fascinating to learn that only 100 species of bacteria can actually make us sick–the vast majority are either neutral or helpful to us. (Even assisting the immune system! “They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe,” Yong writes.)

But there’s still this stigma.

“Microbes are now so commonly associated with dirt and disease that if you show someone the multitudes that live in their mouth, they will probably recoil in disgust,” he writes.

I remember hearing: Your mouth is the dirtiest place on your body! (Apparently the mouth was one of the earliest arenas to undergo bacterial study.)

He later points out that shifting from the viewpoint that “all bacteria must be killed” to “bacteria are our friends and want to help us” is…equally wrong. Bacteria are neutral and have their own agendae. Symbiosis only means “living together,” not necessarily harmonious cooperation.

I get it. There was that tiny bout with MRSA—a naturally occurring bacteria that ordinarily lives under the radar in our nasal tissues. That infection took forever to get gone, and left me with a nickel-sized scar on my leg.

Yong likens our partnership with the microbiome to a relationship that takes work.

Work and love, I say. It can’t hurt. And it might help.

So go ahead. Show your microbes some love.

*governs the adrenals and fight/flight/freeze mechanism