The Case for Slowing Down

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Today I’ve been thinking about a “Good Samaritan” experiment. In this study, seminary students were rated for their helpfulness to a man in apparent distress, though they had no idea that he was even part of the experiment.

They were each given an assignment and sent to another building to complete it. On the way each encountered a man slumped in a doorway, moaning in distress.

Some stopped, some didn’t.

Some had been told to prepare a talk about the Good Samaritan, while others had a more generic task. The content of the task did not appear to affect their choice of whether to help the man or not.

What did make the difference was the seminarians’ sense of urgency. The experimenters told some of them that they were already late and should rush to get to the next building. These were far more likely to ignore (even step over!) the man in need.

Those who weren’t in a hurry helped in greater numbers.

Were the nonhelpful seminarians (especially those focused on the topic of the Good Samaritan!) crass hypocrites with zippo compassion? No, they felt pressured to get their central task done, to keep moving. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely been there.)

In fact, according to the article I read, many who did not stop appeared anxious when they entered the second building. Their inner conflict showed up in agitation.

To my mind, this study clearly shows one “unselfish” reason why it’s crucial to S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N the pace of our lives. (Of course, as our sense of separation between ourselves and the larger world breaks down, there’s really no such thing as selfish vs. unselfish. What happens to you happens to me. Witness the subjects’ bodies’ own distress signal.)

In the Western world we are supposed to be hyperefficient and “productive” all the time. We overschedule ourselves in an effort to get more done. Even when I am “off duty” at the end of the day, I’m tempted to keep checking my phone or laptop, to look up one more thing, to multitask when I am theoretically at leisure.

What is the cost of all our rushing around? Distractedness, high blood pressure, anxiety, and more. Meanwhile we live whole days, months, years, barely present to our lives.

Here’s my friend Melody Groothius, mom to two and lover of the world:

I hope I never think that what I’m doing is so important that I can’t stop and acknowledge – my kids, a chance to laugh at a joke (especially a terrible dad joke), a beautiful flower, the sound of a singing bird, the feel of a gentle spring breeze against my face as I step out the door. We’ve all got deadlines and “very important” interviews and articles and things to say but, honestly, those aren’t more important than any of those other things…actually, not really very important at all when I stop to think about it…

We tend to think we will slow down later on…when we get something big done, or go on vacation, or retire. Generally the habit of rushing is so ingrained that it is hard to overturn, even if we make a point of it. It can take a health scare or other personal tragedy to bring us out of our trance of busyness.

But creating some space in our schedule right now—though it will never be rewarded by the dominant cultural story!–is crucial to creating a world worth living in.

I leave you with a “Run Report” by my poet friend Alyssa Chase, who conceives lovely haikus as she takes her daily run, later to post on Facebook.

What’s the good of all I’ve learned? How to schedule peccadilloes, negotiate obsolescence, parse darts? Blue sky answers: Do something else.

Rising

On International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about what it means to be human.

We are in the midst of a rebalancing. The old patriarchal systems are groaning under the weight of their own corruption and perversion.

So we rise. “We are the leaven of this land, and we are on the rise,” says the marvelous artist/activist Jan Phillips.

And this is what it means to be human: to rise, to integrate. The feminine principle is ascendant not just in women, but in all genders. I know this is true because more and more hearts are awakening to our interconnectedness all the time.

We know intuitively, as women have from the beginning of time, that we are all connected. This is why we feel pain in our own bodies when we encounter the pain of the world.

When we hear of record numbers of immigrants crossing our northern border into Quebec seeking asylum, it hurts. When we read of a white rhino killed by poachers in a Paris zoo, our hearts break. Photos of clearcut forests, news of oil pipelines spilling into waterways, awareness of “mother nature on the run” as Neil Young put it—painful.

Our hearts break, over and over. We mend them as best we can—through touch, conversation, nature, meditation, prayer. Only to break again.

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Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, female Buddha, photographed at a temple in China

We can move swiftly from pain to outrage, which distances us a little, gives us back the upper hand in a way. (If I can find someone to blame, then I don’t have to dwell in heartbreak as long.)

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has this to say about that painful place:

When we don’t close off, when we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.

Our challenge is to not close our hearts even to those who would do us harm, or do harm to the people and places we love.

I heard a story of an Afghan woman who works to educate girls in Afghanistan. Fundamentalists dislike that, and she’s subject to death threats. One day at a checkpoint she was recognized and pulled out of a car by a group of bearded, turbaned men with guns. The people in the car worried for her life. But she walked back after a half hour of talking with the men, saying, “We can go.”

She stayed open, and refused to see the fundamentalist men as her enemy. It turned out that they wanted an education, just like the young girls she worked with. They had made arrangements to meet outside the mosque for lessons.

The feminine principle is strength and love, strength IN love.

We’ve been schooled to think that the only way to make change is through force, whether physical or psychological or financial. But as the feminine principle shows, change happens in more mysterious ways. Ways that can’t always be predicted or explained.

And if we know that there is truly no separation, then our small human lives have meaning beyond all measure. Nothing we offer in love is ever wasted, no matter how small, because we nourish the new world with our deeds, thoughts, and hearts. What we do (are)—strengthens the good in ways we may never know.

A Little Time-out

Being human is feeling all kinds of stuff we’d rather not. It’s easy to run away from “bad” feelings, to try to Facebook / eat / drink them away. Or we might get stuck in a trough, and end up thinking the feeling is who we are. “I am an anxious/depressed/angry person.”

But how about experimenting with falling into whatever “bad feeling” arises? It can be interesting to explore and befriend an emotional state, without attaching to it.

I briefly befriended a tiny unhappy girl in pink snow boots last week, and later I realized the parallels. Small girl, small inner feeling. (My own feeling states usually start out small, and if I notice and tend to them early enough in their unfolding, I can often shift them before they get big.)

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Photo by Gunnar Sigurður Zoega Guðmundsson, via Flickr Commons

The girl was one of about 10 children in a child care group I assisted for a short time. (How I, the easily overstimulated introvert, ended up in this unaccustomed space is another story!) This girl ran and laughed with the bigger boys for a while, but then I noticed she had withdrawn. Her forehead had gone all puckery.

Say this little girl is the feeling, hankering for attention. The first thing is simply to notice the feeling arise. And it might not be obvious in the noise and clang of life. Maybe it’s just a furrowed forehead or the absence of a smile or the sudden need to pull back.

I could relate, as a formerly small and often overwhelmed girl myself. So I went and sat with her.

The second thing is to go and be with the feeling. It’s not helpful to chide the little girl for withdrawing, or feed her food she doesn’t need, or cajole her into playing again before she’s ready. But we can go and sit. Be in solidarity.

I saw that she tugged at the Velcro of her boots. So I helped her take them off. The day was warm. Her feet had gotten hot.

So that’s another thing: to address physical discomfort, or bring some air to something constricted. It wouldn’t do to holler at the little girl for having those boots on in the first place, or to ignore her discomfort, or to tell her to just keep marching.

That’s pretty much my process, not that I always do it. (I do my share of eating-for-distraction!) Basically: Paying attention, opening some space. I find that just by focusing in on what hurts, I can get valuable information. Not only that, but just attending with kindness is often enough to soften constrictions and transform pain.

By the way, I did play with the girl then. I tried different silly things to see what would catch her fancy. She just looked at me all sad-eyed. What finally got some movement from her was a beanbag toss game. Sitting next to her, I grabbed a bowl and beanbags and threw them in at very close range. Then gave them to her. She basically set them in the bowl one by one, very tentatively. I cheered each one. A tiny smile. (I felt like such a genius at this point, as I am more used to playing with animals than children!) We kept it up, with me moving the bowl around and acting goofy. She finally leaned in close to grab the bowl in one hand and hold it still. By this time she was laughing and I felt like I’d won the lottery, seeing those eensy teeth again, hearing that infectious sound.

So to continue the analogy…Maybe starting a tiny “job”—after sitting with the feeling and bringing comfort—is a way back from feeling stuck. Some easy thing that can be built upon, that can end up feeling like play.

After a while, she scampered off to play with the boys some more. (Me: “My work is done.”)

No matter how we deal with our emotions, the bottom line is: There’s nothing wrong with a little time-out to care for a tender underbelly.

A Love Story

In the wake of a day devoted to romantic love, I’m thinking of a love story I heard years ago. It was in a yoga class in Point Reyes Station, CA, where I was on a writing retreat. The yoga instructor was fond of telling wisdom stories, spinning out tales over the course of a class. Two days before I was to return home, she told a story of the Hindu god Krishna.

She characterized Krishna as something of a playboy, full of mischief. In a particular village, his flirtations with the local maidens caused havoc.

I remember one example of his naughtiness: He stole the milkmaids’ clothing as they bathed in the river. He refused to give the clothing back until they came out of the river stark naked to beg him.

Then there was his flute-playing, which mesmerized the women of the village. The women, enthralled by the magic of his flute, left whatever they were doing to dance with him on the banks of the river.

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Lord Krishna with flute, via Wikimedia Commons, photo by Virumandi1

“Even in the middle of lovemaking,” the yoga teacher said, “any woman who heard his flute would leave her husband to come to Krishna and dance.”

After teasing all the milkmaids with his evidently irresistible beauty and charm, Krishna ran off with a particular milkmaid named Radha, who (though married) was completely besotted with him. If I remember right, when they left, the other milkmaids were bereft.

But in the end, the story reveals our relationship with the Divine, our one true love. The yoga teacher spoke of expanding into that feeling of being in love—only instead of falling in love with a person, we’re in love with everything.

Years later the milkmaids were said to have located Krishna in their own lives, no longer needing his physical presence to feel the magic of love. “Krishna is in my needlework,” they told his emissary. “Krishna is in my cooking! Krishna is in my flowers, he’s in my grandchild.”

(One hopes, for the sake of those poor husbands, that the milkmaids also found Krishna in their married life!)

While I was writing this post, I went into the kitchen and saw my glass of water lit by sunlight on the counter. So beautiful.

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About that mean trick Krishna played on the river-bathing maidens: As an allegory, it imparts a spiritual teaching. When we expand into love and passion, we are brave enough to appear unclothed—to be vulnerable enough to show ourselves in our true form.

The Krishna story turns out to be all about Big Love, finding magic in the everyday, feeling all the passion that comes with falling in love. When we’re falling in love, all our senses come alive, and we vibrate love-love-love, all the time, and nothing can interrupt that feeling.

(I remember a bulletin I heard on NPR last year about the European migrant crisis. Two newlyweds were among the displaced people interviewed. They viewed their trek across Europe to an uncertain future as a grand adventure. Being in love made them soft, hopeful, present, and open.)

How wondrous to imagine living this way without regard for outer circumstances. It would be bliss.

Still life inhales and exhales. We may not always notice the things that freely offer their beauty to us. We may go for weeks in a humdrum frame of mind. Or we might be in chaos, barely able to tread water.

But the minute we return to noticing and appreciating, we can expand again, and set ourselves anew to the Love Channel.

***

I had the opportunity to write a Hoosier Locavore blog post, which was all about the delicious and abundant chickweed. I link to it here because, in retrospect, I see that I find Krishna in a common weed.

The Calder Conundrum, or Lack Thereof

Artist Alexander Calder is the subject of a homegrown musical—written, choreographed, designed and directed by local talent. Calder was an artist who played with movement—in wire figures, sculptures, and mobiles. His whimsical work brought joy and wonder to people in troubled times, particularly during the Depression.

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By Alexander Calder via Wikimedia Commons

I absolutely loved the uplift of the musical, which was fun and campy as well as inspiring. The show offered a celebration of artistic commitment.

Here’s something that struck me as I watched the show: Calder (as depicted onstage) feared his work was juvenile, and at times he internalized other people’s disdain. Self-doubt, the enemy of creativity. A state familiar to many of us.

What struck me also was the way the co-directors of this musical framed our evening as an “escape” from today’s tense times. When I thought about it later, this felt like an extension of the “juvenile” indictment.

I felt that by connecting Calder—and this gorgeous production—to escapism, we did him and his art an injustice. I thought to myself: Joy is not an escape. Joy is fuel. And wonder is not distraction. Wonder is an engine.

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By Caracas1830 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to declare that art is not optional, nor is wonder, nor is joy, nor is love. That these are essential pieces in an activated human’s soul.

The next morning I read Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Poets” in Chasing Utopia. It says in part:

Poets shouldn’t commit suicide. That would leave the world to those without imaginations or hearts. That would bequeath to the world a mangled syntax and no love of champagne…

I thought, yes! For a poet, certain activities are suicide.

My mind went to a sentiment I’ve seen expressed: “People need to stop complaining and run for office if they are serious about change.” For some of us, running for office—let alone holding an office—would be death.

My inner argument ended up here: There are many ways to make change, and we all have our part to play. Some of us will create art that brings joy, or show people a different way of living. Let’s respect and praise and enjoy each other for the countless ways our souls shine while we do our best work, whatever that may be.

Postscript
Interestingly, after I drafted this argument, I mentioned my thoughts to my spouse on the dismissiveness of the term “escape.” (“Escapist drivel” is what I judgmentally “heard.”)

She responded that she doesn’t think of escape in that vein at all. To her, it evokes a pleasant place to go in one’s mind. Nothing negative or demeaning about it.

Apparently I got all up in arms over something that was in my own head. There I go again, doing battle when there’s nothing to battle.

Now, of course,  I realize that this internal argument has everything to do with feeling OK about myself and the level of activism I choose to undertake. With the new administration in the White House, every day there are new actions that pain me. And I want to take part in righting wrongs.

The many requests to call decision-makers…flat out drain me. It’s been tricky to figure out where to direct my time and energy. And I’m constantly judging and pressuring myself.

An underlying story informs my need to prove that I’m good enough through activism. It’s what Charles Eisenstein calls the cultural myth of Separation. The story that says I’m separate from you (whether better—if I make more calls than you!—or worse—if you are one of my many super-engaged friends whose activism goes beyond a mere phone call).

This idea of “I’m bad/wrong for not doing x” leads to …

“I’ll force myself and then I will be worthwhile” which leads to…

“I’m better than you because I care more, and look at what I forced myself to do.”

Basically, I’ve been using the master’s tools (of domination, control, force, separation) in an attempt to bring down the master’s house, to paraphrase Audre Lorde.

This underlying Story of Separation, Eisenstein would say, gets to the root of the interlocked problems we face. It’s the same root that underlies the very problems I do or don’t call about. A sense of humanity as separate from nature, from each other, from the magic of an intelligent cosmos. Which we know now isn’t true.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re talking about a cultural shift from old story to new story.

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By Manuelarosi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how keying into this bigger picture brings me back to a place of joy, wonder, and activation. So that even if I choose do the exact same actions I previously forced myself to do, the energy behind the tasks feels different. More spacious.

How Shall We Meet Ourselves?

A friend tells me that the biggest thing she learned in 2016 was that through any turmoil and pain, “I meet myself.”

The year rocked many of us, that’s for sure. Collective decisions like Brexit and Trump’s election shook foundational values we thought we could count on. We’ve been forced to look straight into the ugly face of racism, misogyny and xenophobia. We feel a worldtilting sense of shock, anger, and sadness, a literal and physical vertigo. And looking ahead, we fear what “we” have chosen for our future and the world’s future.

My Facebook feed is rife with “eff you, 2016” sentiments. People have declared 2016 to be exceptionally sucky, with an inordinate number of celebrity deaths. Not to mention the election, and its accompanying decline of civil discourse.

There’s much that feels out of our control. People die, pundits yammer, a president-elect tweets vitriol (and intent to expand nuclear weaponry) …

We grieve, we vent, we obsess or step away from the 24-hour news cycle as our constitutions dictate. We might sign petitions, write letters, make plans to march. (Or none of the above. Maybe we go numb, maybe we carry on as before.)

Still, we only meet ourselves. Who are we in this moment? Are we awake? Are we alive? Are we triggered, reactive, stuck in fight-flight-freeze mode?

For myself, I can say that paying close attention to my inner landscape is the only way that I can regain my footing these days. When I find myself in free fall, as soon as I remember to, I breathe into the moment and see if I can tend to the triggered place within me. Then I can move into speech or action (or no-action, as needed) with my energy clear.

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Photo by Vivian D Nguyen, via Flickr Commons

I think 2016 was the year that shook us out of our slumber. We have yet to see the full unleashing of a wide-awake (so rudely awakened!) populace. But if the sacred activism at Standing Rock is any indication, spiritually grounded action is a powerful antidote to the corporate greed that runs America.

Most of us won’t take part in grand protests, myself included (most likely). But our actions hold power nonetheless. I was reminded recently to show up in my “home frequency” with authenticity, and let go of outcome.

I think of that fantastically well-written TV show from a few years back, Friday Night Lights. “Clear eyes, full hearts: Can’t lose!” was the mantra of Coach and his high school football players.

How shall we meet ourselves?

Do we go into 2017 embittered, feeling victimized or triggered? Or do we clear our eyes, fill our hearts, and walk into the New Year unfettered?

Shine in Me

Such a deep, dark time of year. It’s hard to believe that the days (since Thursday) have already begun lengthening ever so slightly, a minute or so each day.

From the seasons’ turning, we know that an extended darkness doesn’t spell the end of everything. It’s just a cycle. And we ourselves have the agency to find and nurture the light.

On Wednesday night a Solstice fire gave us a chance to turn within. The flames reduced our scribbled papers and sage sprigs to ash as we released ourselves from the weight of the previous year.

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Photo by rahul rekapalli, via flickr commons.

Tonight my Jewish friends light the Menorah for the first day of Hanukkah. Meanwhile many Christian folks will go to church for a traditional Christmas Eve candlelight service.

Tomorrow, Christmas Day, we ourselves will celebrate with turkey and dressing shared around our table, and some modest gift-giving afterwards. The lights in our front windows will stay on all day and into the evening, a symbol of welcome.

These traditions call on our highest selves to be kind, to be intentional, to be generous, to be grateful.

Light of the World, Shine on Me, the song says.

I suggest a small change. Shine IN Me. After all, we all carry the seed of Divinity within.

Consider this Facebook post from Jul Bystrova, founder of Era of Care, who just returned home from supporting the water protectors at Standing Rock Indian Reservation:

I find myself often comparing this time to the Lord of the Rings. The darkness grows, destroys and seems impossible to stop. But we do well to remember that we were returned to the light by simple hobbits with tremendous courage. We are those simple hobbits.

Whatever your spiritual tradition: shine on, my friends.