Letting the Carapace Go

In San Diego I learned about sheep crabs, the largest California spider crab and impressive as can be, with a knobbily bluish shell.

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Photo by Eva Funderburgh, via Flickr Creative Commons

I learned that crustaceans molt several times over their lifespan: backing out of their carapace after first growing a soft new shell. They pull water into the new shell to expand it to allow for growth. It soon hardens and they go on their merry way in this roomier carapace (until it, in turn, becomes too cramped).

I’ve been taken with this image, thinking: What if we, too, could back out of our shells and emerge with a new watery skin? Though extending the metaphor requires a shell to harden, the expansion is what intrigues me.

We have the power to expand beyond what we think is possible. (And maybe we can be different from crustaceans, and choose to retain that soft, wet outer skin, instead of armoring up.)

What if the world, itself, could molt like that? What if it is in the process of molting right now? I use “world” here to mean consciousness, the stories that guide us, the collective agreements we have all upheld.

Can we make way for something that has yet to take its full form but that gives room for all of us to grow into the fullness of who we are?

In that personal and collective growth, we can look clearly at the shell of what is passing away. Perhaps it protected us, for a time. Or some of us anyway—those who have been privileged enough to be considered normative through race, gender, orientation, etc.

But: It’s time. We don’t have to buy into a story that makes no sense anymore.

We don’t have to agree to a dominant (but dying) cultural myth that diminishes someone else to make ME bigger. We don’t have to purchase (literally) the trappings of a culture that relies on what amounts to slave labor and massive inequity. We don’t have to buy into oppression, exploitation, racism, fear, war.

What if we all just walked away from that old defunct thing, just backed on out and moseyed on our happy way with something much softer surrounding us?

It isn’t easy, I’m not saying that—we white people in particular feel safe in our habits, in our business-as-usual. And the sweep of change encounters tremendous resistance in the form of the nation’s leadership (as Michelle Alexander brilliantly writes in her New York Times Op Ed today). But in the immortal words of Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

To get quiet enough to feel the newness beckon, that feels crucial. To allow the call of the new to bolster us as we get out from under the old.

For me, this exploration lends itself to a simple inquiry: What can I let go of in this moment? Maybe it’s a breath I’ve been holding, a grip in my eyeballs, a resentment, a knee-jerk defensiveness, a fear of speaking up… or a habitual dissing and dismissing of whatever I need to feel, as emotion washes through me.

Acknowledging, allowing, and melting any rigidity… That is where I want to place my attention this first day of autumn, and in the coming season of letting go.

What about you: How do you conceive of the old constrictive shell, whether for yourself or the world? Can you envision a new, slippery, softer shell? What you would like to fill it with as you create more spaciousness?

In backing out from under the carapace, we join countless others in an expansion that can’t be stopped.

Who Makes the Sun Rise?

Have you seen the gorgeous children’s book Who Makes the Sun Rise, by writer/painter Lois Main Templeton? The concept: A rooster takes credit for daybreak because his call precedes it.

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Photo by Kamweti Mutu, via Flickr Creative Commons

We saw the artist’s work last weekend at the Indiana State Museum. Her abstract paintings often incorporate handwritten verbiage into intriguing and beautiful images. (Her story is inspiring—she started creating at the age of 51 and hasn’t stopped, though that was nearly 40 years ago.)

But to that rooster, and his question. I’ve been thinking about how the thing I want to grasp is always just a little farther on. I’m not talking only situations or possessions. I mean: How I want to be is how I am not now. I’d like to be braver, physically hardier, more sure of myself, more centered, more incisive, more evolved. Better.

But: Who makes the day break onto this ideal future self? My present self, with her choice to turn toward everything that is in the present.

I always have the choice to come closer to acceptance, or to distance myself from what is and fixate on some ideal I can’t possibly match.

So who is that elusive future self? The one who will clear out enough mental and physical and schedule space to finish her feckin book. That’s who. The one who will always work to dismantle oppressive structures, who will be properly assertive without alienating, who will see all projects to stunning completion and never get the least bit snippy.

Who will always match inner and outer.

Who will let go of perfectionism once and for all.

See how this future self is so great (embodying all opposing ideals) that she keeps me from loving the flawed being that I am, and will surely remain?

But if I can remember to sink into compassion just for one short moment, I might find that I have just enough courage, and can let go of just enough perfectionism, to do one small thing. Like write for 15 minutes nonstop about something that scares me. Or lift a small free weight. Or say no to one thing I really don’t want to do, so I can turn back to the book. Or say the uncomfortable thing that needs to be said, awkwardly but willingly.

Who makes the sun rise? Into that new dawn, shining bright? My present flawed self, with her choice to act—even if the action is less than well executed, even if she doesn’t know for sure what the hell she’s doing.

Agency, isn’t that what we all need? A sense that we are somehow making life roll on, creating the future. Which we are. We make the day break anew every day. Through the smallest of choices.

So I’ll join that rooster and say without apology: I make the sun rise.

Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

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You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

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Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

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Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

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I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler

 

The Alchemy of Yoga

Sometimes, looking at the horrors of our present age, my thoughts run to “what is the ever-loving point of any of this?”

It’s a heaviness that gives despair the reins. In the wee hours, my brain chatter runs to the bleakest possible things. Teachers I admire and love, young people I care about are attempting to teach and learn… while fearing they might be the next victims of a school shooter? Devastating, terrifying. Unthinkable.

And what of the shooter, of shooters-in-the-making? How deep does our alienation go, that we continue to look away while people tumble into darkness? Would a life-affirming culture continue to produce people with little respect for life?

Yoga is where I get a visceral sense of alienation’s opposite. Yoga means union. In yoga practice, I alchemize my despair, and hold space for the collective to heal. The dysfunctional culture plants its stunted seeds into me, waiting for me to curl inward, grow cynical, turn my back. Yoga grows a new plant entirely.

I go to yoga class to be with my people. My yoga studio welcomes people of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. (My teacher is one of a new vanguard of instructors extending yoga to populations that might not gravitate to it: veterans, people with addictions, older folks, people with disabilities.)

We roll out our mats, sometimes josh and tease, sometimes get serious right away. Our teacher guides us into quietness through simple breath awareness.

We don’t have to stop the mind from its prattling. Just notice where it’s gone and take another conscious breath.

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The movements may be slow and easy, slow and challenging, or flowy and strenuous, depending on the class. But always there’s the pairing of breath with motion, the sensation of really inhabiting the body that so often goes ignored. Union.

If tears threaten, we let them come. It’s all OK.

We are here to challenge our habitual patterns of mind. We are here for community and communion. We are here to find some silence in the fray. We are here to refill our wells. We are here to stretch bodies that sit too much, or ease bodies that work too hard. We are here to touch into timelessness.

By the end of class we’ve been rearranged a little bit. We might leave class kinder than we went in. We will go back to the fractious world, the intractable problems, contributing in whatever way we do, letting go of “what’s the point,” at least temporarily.

The closing invocation might fall into the much-maligned “thoughts and prayers” category, but for me it is a powerful statement of connection that does not preclude action. It invokes what can be, what must be if we want to survive and thrive as a collective.

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know peace, be free from all delusion, and walk through their lives with ease.”

And the light within each of us grows brighter, so we can continue to hold others in Light.

The Truth About Ease

I’ve been both attracted and repelled by an idea that’s gained traction in our culture: that whatever we are supposed to do should feel easy, as in ease-filled. There should be an ease about our choices, and if something is hard, it might not be the right thing for us.

I’ve always thought: What about the Civil Rights movement, and all the hard stuff people did to gain voting rights, to take their rightful place as full citizens? What about every social movement involving people making choices that revealed the truth and pressed for change? What if they’d espoused this philosophy of “ease”—where would our planet be now?

On the other hand, I love the idea of ease! I love the idea that our choices can fit us so thoroughly that our actions and expressions just flow.

Maybe that’s because it’s taken me so long to get over the notion that whatever’s easy for me must not be worth doing. Must not be a gift at all.

Earlier this year a much-admired community organizer stunned me by cluing me in to my impact. Apparently all the stuff I do that comes naturally—reading, thinking deeply, caring, listening, offering insight and concern, connecting people—has helped his organization in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

Here I thought I was just sitting there being thinky/feely, not really “doing” anything.

It’s so easy to discount our native gifts and think we should do more or be different. As Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz counseled a young writer asking how to find her audience: Do You.

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Photo by Walt Stoneburner, via Flickr Creative Commons

So I am learning to follow ease in that regard, and not think that I must work against the grain to offer something of value. After all, the very things that come easy for me might be the hardest things for someone else. Why not play to our strengths?

However, I don’t believe that nothing we attempt should ever be difficult, or that we’re “doing it wrong” if we run into difficulties. I know that writing a book is hard. I know that showing up and being vulnerable is hard. I know that holding people accountable is really damn hard.

Some of these things, at various times and for various people, might be the exact next right thing, no matter how hard. We can tell if they are by keying into a sense of rightness deep in the marrow of our bones.

My new barometer is less about ease and more about alignment. So if something seems hard but still feels right? That’s the direction I need to go.

Full Attentional Living

I’ve been experimenting with my attention lately. When do I want to distract myself? What just happened to make me want to reach for my phone or get on Facebook?
Is it boredom, is it mental strife, is it something I don’t really care to see in myself or my surroundings?

These are questions I’m looking to incorporate into my daily practice of what I’m calling “full attentional living” (like intentional, only wider and more open). By full attentional living I mean: returning myself again and again, as often as required—fully inhabiting this place and time and body.

How often could it be said of me: “The light’s on but no one’s home?” I was a spacy child. Going AWOL (absent with open lids) was my special superpower.

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Probably thinking about horses.

I still value my dreamy drifty nature. But now I find I want to “space out” not by going elsewhere in fantasy, but by being in the spaciousness of my own self.

I find that I have more ease in my tasks and assignments if I regularly take time to sink into a state of deep relaxation and just…attend. Just be.

This might require couch time with zero stimulation. It might involve sitting in the back yard listening to the wrens calling back and forth. It might mean a consultation with a tree friend. Even a few minutes like that can restore me.

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Where you can find me most mornings.

The between-times, when I’m “on,” challenge me to stay in that state of flow and ease. Can I find more relaxation in my body as I go about my tasks? Can I release my eyeballs from their tendency to grip? And still do what I need to do? Usually the answer is yes.

And I’ve begun asking myself, Where is my attention drawn right this moment? What am I noticing? What is the meaning behind it? Where is my soul leading me? What experiences or lessons does my soul need next?

And more than that: What wants to be born in this moment, in this creation cycle of my life? Instead of feeling driven (my old pattern) and using all my willpower to make something happen, I’m playing with a softer way.

I don’t want to clench around my dreams anymore. Instead, I’m seeing if I can feel into an idea, hold it gently, and allow it to unfurl.

All this personal work might sound irrelevant in the face of all that’s unfolding on the wider world stage these days. Yet I don’t think it is. I think that the quality of our focus reverberates far beyond our little spheres.

Could full attentional living make change on a wider scale? I don’t believe, as one of my Facebook acquaintances suggested, that hurricanes and earthquakes arise in part because our collective focus is riveted on these disasters. I do believe, however, in the power of holding gentle attention on the hurting places in myself, on the planet, or in a client or loved one (all the same!).

To be clear for each other, we must clear ourselves, and one place to start is through compassionate attention.

Note: If you live in the Indianapolis area and this post resonates with you, check out my upcoming group: Full Attentional Living. I’ll be your guide to playing with these concepts in a supportive, respectful small group of seekers!

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The ideas in this post were largely inspired by Penney Peirce. I highly recommend her book Leap of Perception.

Contacting the Infinite Self

“No one’s noticing that I got MY hair cut too.”

I heard myself say this in a mock-petulant tone recently when two women friends were gushing over a mutual friend’s dramatic new haircut, the day after I had gotten my own locks styled shorter and cuter than before.

Never mind that I hardly ever notice such things on other people, or that her ‘do was incredibly striking. Dammit, I wanted some attention too!

Well this is embarrassing.

But I am learning something here: I often have this amusing need to be validated, complimented, seen.

I’m figuring out that this seemingly bottomless need is one only I can truly fill, by being with myself in quiet and care, by linking up to All that Is. It’s a need that surely stems from a dearth of self-love.

I don’t mean self-love in the aggrandizing sense of “damn, I’m the greatest thing ever (and so is my hair).” I mean self-love in terms of awareness that I am one with the Source. A Divine being of Light.

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I’m talking big-picture self-love. Turns out that it is no different from other-love, because in that expanded state I am All. There’s no separation, and no need to prove anything.

Anita Moorjani calls this the “infinite self” which has no need to please others or gain approval. Since reading her book Dying to be Me, I’m noticing how often I seek validation in even subtle ways. Like spending time obsessing over how to word an email or post in hopes of gaining a positive response. Or agreeing to do something that really doesn’t float my boat, just to feel worthwhile.

I’m not saying I shouldn’t pay attention to messaging, or only do things that please me (though how great that would be!). Rather, I want to look at the motivations behind my actions and decisions. Operating out of a sense of obligation or a need to prove something feels heavy, and it might taint the action, no matter how well-intentioned.

I’d rather act from a space of connection, feeling replete. Feeling light!

That’s the space that has no need of external validation, I suspect.

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” A writing teacher once quoted John Candy’s line from Cool Runnings (a fantastic movie about the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the Olympics).

My teacher was talking about publication, but we could easily substitute anything that we hold up as a way of gaining that elusive feeling of “enough.”

In truth, we are all more than enough, because we all—at a soul level—represent holograms of that gorgeous Whole.

Remembering that, acting from that place, is the tricky part—but I’m practicing! What else is life for?