Centered: Taking Aim at 2017

I have often vacillated between speaking and not speaking. Many times, I’ve spoken and regretted it. Other times, I’ve chosen not to speak, and found that my silence has hurt me – or worse, hurt others. Occasionally, I’ve held back for a while, allowing a little time to elapse and then tried to speak from my heart in a centered way that was not accusatory or defensive or in another way emotionally manipulative.

In my experience, the latter of those options has generally produced the best results.

And by results, I mean that I have found less cause to regret my words when this is the case. I am not referring to how others have reacted to or responded or felt about what I said.

In personal relationships, I generally err to one extreme or the other. Either I over-explain, over-state, over-emote OR I clam up and suppress my words. The result of both extremes is a disservice to self. When I over-express, I end up becoming hopelessly entangled in rambling sentences, often ending someplace completely unintended – expressing not what I hoped to convey but, rather, drifting  far off-course. When I clam up, I telegraph a message of disregard to my own emotional self that what I’m feeling isn’t important enough to burden someone else with. I don’t believe that everything I feel needs to be shared, but I have learned that sometimes what I’m feeling must be conveyed to another person in order for it to be acknowledged and (hopefully) honored by both listener and speaker – sometimes this is vital for the relationship to thrive. I’ve learned the hard way that relationships do not thrive if one or both parties cannot speak from a place of truth.

In the workplace, I have often told colleagues that I know – and they need to know, too – that my first reaction is rarely my best one. The good news is, it is also rarely my final reaction. But because I know this about myself, the onus is on me to manage my response to various situations and stimuli. It isn’t really fair to ask others to differentiate whether I am knee-jerk-reacting or giving a considered response.

In political life, it is sometimes fun to pronounce a zinger that carries home my point with the surety of an arrow fired from Katniss Everdeen’s bow. When I’m discussing politics with like-minded people, that can be fairly harmless because we’re all shooting in the same direction. But I often wonder what I’ve done to the positive when these arrows are deployed against opposing viewpoints – when the whole exercise is intended to find a soft spot where my point can burrow deep behind someone else’s defenses. I know I’ve managed to wound my opponent – but have I effected a change in their opinion or position? It is a fair question to ask whether the yield is worth the wound inflicted. Often, in my experience, the answer is difficult to ascertain.

Where is the line between saying too much or too little in a polarized world? When does moderation and compromise become collusion and appeasement? When is it necessary for my own holistic well-being to speak and when should my need to speak to be sublimated to the greater good? These are questions that I find myself asking more frequently these days, and to which quick answers are not particularly satisfactory.

That said, I am slowly coming to believe that love speaks from the center.

What do I mean by that? I mean that, looking back, there are a handful of moments when I know that the words I spoke were true and meaningful and carried the full force of love.   In one case, I needed to speak on my own behalf about the ways someone was repeatedly hurting me. I didn’t want to erupt in anger and hurt, but I also needed to stand up for myself and say, “This hurts.” Another instance was when talking with a friend about some personal difficulties she was experiencing. I certainly did not want to add to her pain, but to offer, with compassion, an insight that might be hard to hear. Another final instance was one in which I needed to share a differing perspective with someone in a more powerful role than me. In all three of these cases, I was anxious about what to say, emotionally desirous of a particular outcome, and powerfully drawn toward keeping my mouth shut out of fear. Instead, I took a little time – time to breathe, time to get clear on what the central issue was for me, time to relax the fight or flight response that rears up when strong emotions and fear are at play. I took the time to let go of my need for a predetermined outcome. In other words, I took the time to get centered within myself so that, when I did speak, the words could well forth with the intent of love (as opposed to intent to hurt or to control or to curry favor).

These times in which we are living require something from us. If you’re like me, figuring out what that might be is a difficult and ongoing process of discernment. But I know I will be at my best, offer my best self, when I am able to remain centered, able to access the truth and love available to me in that still place sometimes called my heart, sometimes called my soul.

That, dear friends, is why my one word for 2017 is “centered.”

Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.
–Benjamin Franklin

 

 

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Truth Arrives in Silence

Note: This post continues my reflections on “truth”, my word for 2016.

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“We can’t rob our gifts of their mystery. We can only rob ourselves of our gifts.”

– Ken Page

The temperature dropped to 19 below that first night. I huddled in my plywood cabin under several blankets, completely surrounded by the silence of the snowy woods. Except for the loud cracks of trees popping in the cold, the silence outdoors was vast. Inside, the sounds of some small animal skittering behind the wall or the heater whooshing to life were intermittent, startling me every time.

With none of the usual noise-makers present (no phone service, no television, no computer) I was thrown upon my own inner resources for mental occupation. Of course, I was staying at a retreat center so that was the point: remove the noise and distractions of daily life and allow your inner self to come out.

The first thing that happened was that I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for almost 10 hours. Considering my recent 4-6 hours per night, often punctuated by periods of wakefulness, that long sleep verged on the miraculous.

The next thing I noticed was that the anxiety that had been my near-constant companion for months, let go of its stranglehold on my throat and lifted itself up off of my chest. I didn’t really care where it had gone, I was just so grateful that it had! I didn’t mind that the day’s temps had never rallied above zero. I bundled up and grabbed a walking stick and headed out to hike in the woods, following trail markings to make my way.

Into my silent mind paraded all the things – you know the ones: the things I hadn’t done, the things I had failed at, the things I never quite managed to get a handle on; the things I should have, ought to have, and meant to do or become. Usually, these things make me feel so awful, so down on myself, that I quickly find something to do to get out of the silence that invites them in. Instead, I kept walking.

The path through the snow and ice covered woods was rough and uneven. I was grateful for the walking stick that allowed me to keep moving, for the boots that kept my toes warm, for the scarf that filtered the freezing air as it entered my body.

Next to arrive in the mental parade: all of the beauty surrounding me, outside of me. I noticed ice crystals on the frozen creek, forming dramatic and intricate patterns; the bare trees reaching in stark loveliness toward the blue sky; the turkey tracks forming their own path in virgin snow just off the walking trail. I felt a surge of positive energy rising from my feet on the ground up through the top of my head. I looked around me in wonder.

Last to arrive, buoyed up by the surge of gladness in my heart and shyly tip-toeing into the silence, came my deepest gifts – the beauty that resides deep inside me. Psychologist Ken Page calls them Core Gifts, saying:

“…They are simply the places where we feel the most deeply, where we most ache to express our authentic self…we spend large parts of our lives fleeing their call… Yet, as safe as we may feel by avoiding our core gifts, there is a grave cost to this avoidance…We create a vacuum where our self should be, and our nature abhors that vacuum.”

Nature abhors that vacuum. So we fill it with noise and busyness and the consuming of stuff. We adventure and we schedule and we work. Anything to avoid the silence. A friend recently told me that she can’t have silence, because if she is surrounded by silence for too long, “…bad things happen. No, I can’t do silence.” But the bad things come first because they’re closest to the surface. We’re aware of them on a daily basis even if we don’t look at them straight-on. Deeper, beneath that layer of mental and emotional filth, the good stuff is hiding. If we never allow silence, we rarely break through to the gifts.

Deep inside, hidden in the silence, is the mystery of my best self. I put it there to keep it safe from the inevitable hurts, shame, embarrassment that it felt when I was a child and others glimpsed it. Vulnerable as it felt in the open, it turns out that a locked box isn’t the optimum place to keep my best self. If I never make room for silence, I never make space for my best self to emerge in daily life. I only leave space for what is always lurking just below the surface; I only allow room for anxiety and fear and loneliness.

I’m not claiming that two days at a retreat center allowed me to retrieve my best self for good. But I am suggesting that real, substantive, silence is a good thing. We feel uncomfortable at first. We immediately access the crappy stuff. But if we stick with it, eventually our inner butterfly emerges from the crysalis we’ve hidden in our hearts. Our best self unfolds its gorgeous wings, and we become aware that, perhaps, the thing we’ve been fearing and avoiding is the core of who we are. And it glistens like a diamond – or like glittery snow on a brightly cold day in the silent north woods.

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Silence in the City

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“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.”  — Chaim Potok, The Chosen

Friends who have visited my new place have all commented something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re right in the city here!” It’s true, I live at a busy city intersection, minutes from the heart of downtown, surrounded by high density housing and next door to what must be the busiest gas station in town. At certain times of the day, traffic makes it a real adventure to pull into or out of the parking lot of my building. There is a fire station a few blocks away that roars into action down our street multiple times a day. Sirens, flashing lights, honking horns, shouting people and barking dogs…there is always some kind of street noise entering my ground-floor windows.

It is an interesting contrast, therefore, that within my apartment, silence reigns supreme.

Silence, it appears, is relative. As I sit here, I hear the quiet click of the ceiling fan, water running down the pipes as my upstairs neighbor showers, the 18-year-old in Apartment 3 high-tailing it down the stairs. I have become accustomed to the laboring motor on my refrigerator, the white noise of the box fan in the window, the occasional clack of window blinds stirring in a breeze. In the mornings, my coffeemaker gurgles and pops like a symphony until the coffee is brewed, then lets out a long, slow, humid sigh as it finishes. Until I moved here, I didn’t realize that my computer, my Kindle, and my phone all ding at me constantly, day and night.

“Silence is so freaking loud” — Sarah Dessen, Just Listen 

When I say silence reigns supreme, what I mean is that my apartment is mostly devoid of intentional noise. I left my television behind when I moved here. My stereo is an anachronism that remains packed (does anyone listen to CDs anymore?). I am not computer savvy enough to have Netflix or Hulu, though I do stream music occasionally or, if I remember, “This American Life” on Public Radio. I discovered that the local news streams its 10:00 broadcast and I catch that when I can. All of which is to say that there are huge blocks and swaths of time when I am home and it is quiet.

I vividly recall a friendly argument I had with my mother when I was in college. (I recall the content, but it probably stuck in my mind because our arguments were rarely what you’d call ‘friendly’.) We were housecleaning, and I had turned the stereo up as I dusted in order to hear it above the vacuum cleaner Mom was using in the next room. After yelling to get my attention and to “turn that racket off”, Mom said, “Right now, you think you need noise all the time, I was like that at your age. But when you get older, you’ll learn to appreciate silence. Besides, that music just sounds like noise to me.” My response was typical of a snot-nosed late-adolescent know-it-all. It went something like, “I’ll never let myself be that old.”

In this, as in so many things, my mother was right. Its been true often enough that saying those words no longer even sticks in my craw. It turns out, Shirley has known a thing or two all along. For example, that silence allows you to hear your own thoughts. At 18 or 19, my thoughts may not have been worth much active listening, but these days they’re full of interesting things, some of which are worth hearing. That silence allows for attention to the task at hand, rather than distraction from it. That silence is a void into which, given enough time to gestate, creative ideas are born.

Right now, being new to the city and having few established relationships here, silence is my default mode. I usually take it with me when I leave the house, as well. No companions and no ear buds mean I notice more. The aromas of the city: car exhaust, international cuisines, flowers, hot asphalt. The hidden art (mosaics on the alley-facing sides of two buildings, for example). The faces of my diverse neighbors, their rude stares or shy smiles, often a quick nod as if to say, “Yep, we’re both here, in this city, and that’s all good.” The feel of a lake breeze stirring the hair on my arms. Both the sunshine and the rain are an explosion of sensations, sounds, scents, sensations on my exposed skin.

I won’t say that silence and I are always easy comrades. One night I cried like a baby when I couldn’t get the news to load and play on my computer. I just really needed to hear someone else’s voice in real-time. Just needed to know what was going on someplace besides in my own head.  But for the most part, silence and I have become pretty good roommates. We hang out, we read, we think, we communicate through both thought and words (written words-I haven’t yet begun speaking aloud to myself). And we are busy discovering new frontiers together: a new city, a new living space, a new head space. Which leads me to something I never understood when Shirley (Mom) talked about silence: it can be an adventure.

In this city, where silence is mostly found on the internal plane, I have good and bad days. Mostly, though, I am having the adventure of a lifetime – an opportunity to discover new places both out and about the town, and within myself. I am learning that my capacities for inner happiness and for calm are both much greater than I would have believed six or eight weeks ago. That my tolerance for change and “newness” is higher as well. I am learning that constant chattering – whether in the form of radio, television, my own voice – serves to drown out the vital gifts of silence: awareness, presence, and deep listening.

“The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.” –Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.
 
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Walking in the Dark

Almost the first thing I notice: nothing looks the same. Though, normally, I have a strong internal compass, suddenly I lose my bearings easily and often. Shadows and pools of light transform even the most familiar streets into alien territory. At corners, I move up close to the street signs, shining my little key-fob light at the words, verifying that I’m someplace familiar, in spite of appearances.

Walking in my neighborhood at night, I notice little things like the discarded banana peel I almost stepped on (imagine what a story that would have made!), or that a surprising number of motion-activated flood lights pick up movement in the street. And I notice big things: the dearth of sidewalks; streetlights shining up into the orange leaves of the sugar maples. I notice clouds scuttling across the bright white harvest moon, blown by the freshening winds of autumn.

Recently, I have been grappling with issues and transitions in my life. Mostly, I have been unable to share them in this blog for two reasons. First, some stories are not mine alone to tell. Second, there are practical considerations which prevent me talking about some of these processes for now. But this blog has become my way of inviting others to share my journey, and your companionship on the road has truly motivated and inspired me to keep moving forward. To be bound to silence for the time being – this has truly been difficult.

Add to that the discomfort we all feel at the thresholds of new places, when we know we want to enter but are unsure of what awaits us – and I am all verklempt. Inside, I roil. Emotion threatens to overwhelm me. An impetus to speak, to act, to move pushes outward from my core – yet I am in a moment of stasis before the rapid acceleration I am certain is to come.

When I must do something, I head out into the night to walk. Up and down streets I’ve taken for granted for years. Past houses full of neighbors I’ve never met, past dogs in yards begging for attention, past fallen leaves and trash cans set out for the morning collection.

As I walk, I talk to myself. Admonitions. To-do lists. Corrections to my faulty thinking. Snippets of poetry. Half conversations – some real, some my lines in imaginary dialogues. Occasionally, I check that this running-at-the-mouth is truly internal, that I haven’t started actually speaking out loud like the mentally-ill homeless woman who alternately breaks my heart and frightens me.

The parallels between the metaphorical road I am walking in my life and these actual night walks are not lost on me. In both cases, I am treading familiar/not familiar territory. Change is surrounding me, from the physical changes of autumn to the emotional and psychological changes required by liminal moments. I have to move forward, with determination and without fear (hello, since when have I not been afraid of the dark?). Focus is required to avoid tripping and to keep from psyching myself out. I am treading both paths alone.

I walk until my shoulders start to ache, usually the first sign of fatigue, which slows the mental synapses and causes my internal voice to grow quiet. My mind is finally free to notice the big and little things I mentioned earlier. I begin to hear the sounds occurring outside my own head: the scuttle of a squirrel chase, the frantic tinkle of windchimes, a distant siren’s wail. I lean into the wind and breathe deeply. Finally…finally…I relax. Finally, I can stop trying to force things. I can let go of the need for specific outcomes, and just lean into the now. Lean into the perfect red-orange of a fallen leaf on the black asphalt at my feet.