Pause It!

Noon time run just commenced, I trot easily along a little-used stretch of road beside the river. An easy hello from an acquaintance heading home for lunch. Heaving into sight behind and approaching, four adolescent boys strung loosely abreast, across the road, Chicago Bulls hats twisted brim-to-rear, Raiders jackets unzipped, and soggy runners on foot in lieu of discarded winter boots. Familiar as I am with the verbal jibes tossed my way by members of this set, I discount the too-loud remarks about the “string bean”, and carry on running, hard against the left shoulder of the street.

Five feet separates us now. Adjacent-most lad, apparently not yet fully exorcised of his feelings toward approaching runner, jumps sideways into my path, menaces briefly, and then back — but sufficient only to allow the narrowest of passage between his bulk and the snow bank. . .

TIME OUT FOR CONSIDERATION OF ETHICAL DILEMMA: My socialized, therapist side would dictate, slowing, drawing the lad aside — perhaps offering a seat on the nearest available park bench. Reflect to him my awareness that his behaviour confirmed a need to act out against adult authority, to challenge a symbol of the world he wished to define himself as distinct from, and to elevate his status amongst his peers. To point out my feelings and the impact of his actions on another human being. To suggest alternate ways of connecting with me, should we meet again under similar circumstances. (This would be method # 1: six, beautifully orchestrated steps to resolving conflict between the adult and adolescent sphere.)

OR. . . It was so easy. Good forward momentum; accessible target; exaggerate that arm swing just a bit and BAM — right fist planted in solar plexus without even breaking stride. From behind, I pick up the reaction: “The ______ hit me!” Carry on running. Some fifty feet apart and perceived as a safe distance away, the expletives begin to float my way. I turn and begin to trot after the group. Two break for cover. A third, turns toward me — to challenge; to delay so his friends might escape. No. As it turns out he merely wanted confirmation that his friend hadn’t hallucinated the whole encounter.

“You ain’t gonna hit me are ya?” “No”, I reassured, placing my hands on his shoulders; “I’ll just show you what your buddy did.” “Oh, he said you punched him.” “Well, if his running into my hand as we passed constitutes a punch, I suppose he’s right. See ya.” Sometimes, to enhance personal growth and awareness — you just gotta use Method # 2!
Excerpt from an anonymous runner’s journal, Winter, 1994

I’ve pretty much passed the torch to my daughter – at least where Mercury’s winged feet are concerned. I must say, I don’t really miss suiting up for a 25 kilometer run on a cold and windy Sunday morning in February (or the adolescent confrontations). But while the obsessive commitment and discipline may have downshifted a generation, some of the sidebars continue to linger. In particular, as I look back, what seems to have stuck around is the (obstinate) arrogance and entitlement that comes with facing the elements (human or meteorological) equipped with little more than a pair of running shoes and the flimsiest of clothing – while all those slugs, bundled to the nine’s, insist on driving down ‘my road’ and pushing aside this hero of winter. And with it, the ludicrous ‘mouse that roared’ standoffs between a near-naked, 135 pound runner and a significantly better equipped automobile, complete with pissed off driver at the wheel. Many’s the time where the mouse’s roar consisted of the first few letters of the ‘Jersey alphabet’ – effin A, effin B, and effin C – phonetically speaking, complete with the Canadian sign language equivalents. Age seems not to have diminished some things – good old fashioned, knee-jerk reactivity to the challenge. ‘Road rage’ to be sure.

So what’s to be done? Another excerpt, in a more somber vein, this time from a letter to the Beacon Herald from some friends and responsive to the ‘calls for his head’ following the killing of one of Stratford’s swans; the public need for extreme consequation:

We wonder if it might be timely and helpful for all of us to take a few, slow, deep breaths and reflect on our reactions to swan Angela’s death. It is appropriate and natural for us to feel pro­found grief over the horrific death of a beautiful mother, and our accompanying anger at the “sad cruelty” that was directed at her is also normal. It is further reasonable that we would hope that the perpetrator(s) would be found and held accountable for what happened. However, we are concerned about the vindictiveness that is being expressed against those responsible. Calls for public humiliation and ruthless punishment only serve to place us all in a similar role of inflicting cruelty — that which we claim to be denouncing.

On reading, I was reminded of the little ‘pause button’ so much a part of our ubiquitous, electronic gadgetry. The symbol, of course, is that of two, short, vertical, parallel lines – with a convenient and appropriate space between. Quite unlike the ‘play’ or the ‘fast forward’ buttons – that compel us to ‘get on with it’ – it seems to suggest a space to ‘pause’ and reflect; to pause and reconsider; not unlike the writers’ plea above.

They continue:
Further, might we gain a different perspective if we asked ourselves: what if the perpetrator were my child? My brother? My friend? What would best serve him in learning and moving on from this event? We wonder what suggestions we would come up with then.

Several possibilities are offered as to how we might conduct ourselves – as we spend that brief moment ‘between the lines’:

Take some time to develop a different perspective (the child, brother, friend vs. faceless villain view). Karen Armstrong, in the opening chapter of her Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, comments on the universality of the ‘Golden Rule’, common to all faith structures and attributed in its origin to Confucius as the constant guide that informs one’s daily conduct: ‘All day, every day, never do to others what you would not like them to do to you’ (aka, empathy).
Or we could collect data, understanding of the circumstance, the individual before acting. Further, Zindel Segal (The Mindful Way Through Depression) encourages us to consider alternatives: “Acceptance or allowing (vs. action), as a vital first step, lets us be­come fully aware of issues, and then, if appropriate, to respond in a skillful way of addressing these issues — rather than to react in knee-jerk fashion, by automatically running off some of our old (often unhelpful) strategies” – what an acquaintance calls ‘sitting with. . .’ versus ‘acting on’. Resisting the view that, when one is ‘inactive’, one is condoning, endorsing a situation; rather than simply reflecting on it.
And finally, Breathing. As the letter suggests, ‘let’s take a few, slow, deep breaths. . . ‘ Again, Segal offers a variant on this common ‘pause button’. He calls it the ‘three-minute breathing space’; the A, B, C’s (not from New Jersey this time!):
A – Awareness. Observe – bring the focus of awareness to your inner experience and notice what is happening in your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Describe, acknowledge, identify – put experiences into words; for example, say in your mind: “A feeling of anger is arising” or “Self-critical thoughts are here.”
B – Breathe. Redirecting your Attention. Gently redirect your full attention to the breath. Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out. Try noticing, at the back of your mind, “Breathing in . . . Breathing out”; or counting, “Inhaling, one . . . exhaling, one. . . inhaling, two. . .exhaling, two. . .etc.”.
C – Connect, in a Considered way. Allow your attention to expand to the whole body – especially to any sense of discomfort, tension, or resistance. If these sensations are there, then take your awareness there by ‘breathing into them’ on the in-breath. Then, breathe out from those sensations, softening and opening with the out-breath. Say to yourself on the out-breath, “It’s OK. Whatever it is, it’s OK. Let me feel it”. Become aware of and adjust your posture and facial expression. As best you can, bring this expanded awareness to the next moments of your day.

So the space between the lines is as much about bringing intention to our behaviour; informing our actions before doing, versus the automatic ‘knee jerk’ (hmmm, jerk?) I suppose there is a time for Method #2 – at least that anonymous runner considered his choices. . . I suppose.

The Conundrum of Silence

Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father entered Hell. . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied with Noise. . .the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile. . .We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, 1942).

So ‘senior demon’ Screwtape enthuses to his trainee, Wormwood as he counsels the latter in the finer points of corrupting humanity.

And Paul Simon, a little more recently from the Sounds of Silence, as he once again acquaints himself with ‘darkness, his old friend’: “Fools”, said I, “You do not know, Silence like a cancer grows. . .”

Silence, it would seem then has accumulated something of a bad rep – that state, the very presence of which we seemingly struggle to displace; that which we instinctively associate with emptiness, isolation, being ‘out of touch’. To fend it off, we whistle in the dark – any sound, even of our own contrivance, is better than the alternative (no sound) – lest we fall victim to the ‘demons in the dark’, apparently, hopefully kept temporarily at bay by our hollow, atonal efforts; the unwatched TV, elevator music, white noise generators all providing (reassuring?) background sound. Even our own brain is programmed to generate some sound, any sound, to fill the void, if one accepts current explanations of the psychological bases of tinnitus (that irritating, sometimes crazy-making whine we ‘hear’ inside our heads, when our surround quiets down).

Perhaps in keeping with the envelope-pushing of the 1970’s, ‘altered states’ were of sufficient ‘scientific’ interest to prompt researchers to experiment with any number of means of inducing same. Timothy Leary and his ‘acid trips’ aside, immersion tanks, essentially ‘sensory deprivation pods’ (not all that different from claustrophobic, sound-proof tanning beds), surfaced as vehicles to explore our response to the absence of . . .everything. Suspended in body-temperature saline solution, in the dark and silence, no surprise that, left very alone with one’s thoughts, the therapeutic intent would sometimes slip off the rails and skate pretty darn close to hallucination, psychosis.
Be we graduate psychology students, struggling to ‘sit in silence and listen’ (vs. filling the quiet times in sessions with compulsive chatter) or bored adolescents tweeting and instant-messaging (r u thr? – and what do I do if you’re not!), the apparent aversion to silence is near universal.
And so summoning the courage to actually invite silence into our space, to embrace it – if only for the 30 minutes we carve out to sit mindfully each day – must seem like a nearly counter-intuitive act, working against what the culture and the individual would advocate and encourage as acceptable behaviour. But the potency of quiet – particularly quiet in the presence of others – is undeniable. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a BBC interview recently referenced an anecdote following the 9-11 tragedies. He recounts the meeting of a priest, a rabbi, and an imam, sharing neither a common language nor essentially a common belief, as the three contemplate the enormity of what’s just happened and struggle to define what their respective roles might be – as they minister to their damaged and damaging flocks. Acutely aware that words cannot begin to capture the task before them, they sit in silence – and, in that wordless space, the healing began.
Consider the paradox that the very capacity to speak, not merely ‘communicate’ (as, obviously some ‘sub-human’ species are able), at once contains perhaps the single most defining aspect of our ‘humanness’ and the particular seeds of our undoing. Although the point of Babel was to highlight the folly of human achievement for its own sake, an interesting sidebar is the mechanism by which the endeavor was ultimately quashed – failed communication. How many times have we heard variations on the theme of being ‘misunderstood’, when our meaning fails to match the intention of our spoken word; heard email pilloried because it lacks the nuance, the face-to-face quality and cues, the inflection in the voice – and is ‘mis-read’. How, when we sense we are being misinterpreted, our compulsion is to throw more words at the issue – and succeed in only making things worse.
If words sometimes unnecessarily complicate our lives, silence might just enhance its quality. Sara Maitland, a British author, in her memoir A Book of Silence, charts her extended personal experiment as she flees the ‘noisy world’ in which she spent her childhood and adolescence and moves increasingly to ‘silent places’. She chronicles the good and the bad – but generally concludes that, it is only in silence and solitude that she began to hear and see what is around her. How close is that to a working definition of mindfulness?
And so to coattail on last week’s focus on ‘right speech’ – and its implication for less talk – I might encourage a little personal experiment. Finding opportunities to cultivate formal quiet times in one’s day when the household agrees to be in each other’s presence – but not speak. Or, at a slightly more ambitious level, consider a ‘silent retreat’ for a day or two, either structured or self-directed – and see what ‘floats up’. Just as a regular mindfulness practice affords you the (quiet) opportunity to ‘see what’s of interest’ to you, carrying this directive out into your day can be surprising instructive.

What Jeeves Didn’t Say

Intrigued by the giggles, I began, ineffectively, to try to read over my wife’s shoulder as she plowed her way through The World of Jeeves. Ultimately I asked that she read passages aloud that she felt might be of mutual interest and entertainment; and happily, she complied. Fans of both Wodehouse and Stephen Fry, we were both soon Googling (and giggling) YouTube for clips of Wooster and Jeeves, Fry and Hugh Laurie’s (aka, House) wonderful adaptation of Wodehouse’s extended lampooning of this ‘English gentleman’ – and with him, the British aristocracy. One of the ‘idle rich’, Bertie Wooster is regularly in need of rescuing by Jeeves, his capable and attentive valet. The only cost it would seem is the latter’s quietly understated, but acerbic commentary on his employer’s naïve, self-absorbed, and often witless behaviour – to which Bertie is typically quite oblivious.

Having settled on ‘Minnie the Moocher’, we listened as Bertie plunked out a piano rendition of the Cab Calloway tune, all the while soliciting comment – and the occasional assist or explanation – from Jeeves. The skit includes Bertie’s observation on the wittiness of the lyric, inviting Jeeves’ opinion. “Now that is clever, Jeeves!” “What is, sir?” “Well, don’t you see: ‘Sweden’ rhyming with ‘needin’”; and Jeeves’ terse but very complete retort: “Almost, sir”. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwgS1ctxglw for those who might want to see the original.)

Now Jeeves in his self-effacing style would hardly have considered himself a model of the Buddhist way. But contained in variations of that oft repeated dialogue between Bertie and Jeeves, are all the essential elements of a simple and effective means of transferring Metta mindfulness, Loving-kindness into the rest of our day as we struggle to find ways to extend our 30-minute sit to the other 23 ½ hours: Right Speech.

One the rudiments of the ‘eight-fold path’, right speech is variously seen as communicating according to three or four simple ‘rules’ or principles. Is what I am about to say truthful? Is it helpful? And is it timely? After listening to the Fry-Laurie skit, I was tempted to add a fourth: is it succinct? (On doing a bit of research, I later found a quote attributed to the Buddha that seems to support the latter’s inclusion: “Better than a meaningless story of 1000 words, is a single word of deep meaning which, when heard, produces peace”.)

Jack Kornfield tells the story of attempting to act strictly by the parameters of right speech for a day in his life: not speaking unless what he was about to say met all the criteria listed above. If one or more ‘tests’ were failed, he didn’t speak – or at least reworded with more thought / compassion what he was about to say. Remarkably, although perhaps not so surprising after all, the volume of communication dropped by some two-thirds. He was simply more quiet.

Truthfulness is a particularly tricky one. I suspect most of us, under ‘normal’ circumstances, don’t likely lie all that much. But what about sarcasm / irony: “The expression of one’s meaning using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous effect”. Right speech doesn’t preclude expressing the thought – only asks that it be spoken in a direct and clear (versus inverted, ‘backwards’) fashion. Gossip anyone – ‘second hand stories’, the provenance of which is much less important to us than the juicy details. Try, for a day – or an hour – avoiding commenting on anyone not present in the room with you. Joe Goldstein maintains that this simple exercise compels you, ever so briefly, to abstain from analyzing, judging, evaluating; and to raise your awareness of how much of our communication is devoted to ‘absentee subjects’ (targets?). Much easier to talk about the person not present. Or the exaggerated tale, embellished just that little bit for effect, emphasis – no harm in that, right?

Washing our comments through the filter of helpfulness can be equally challenging. I’ve always wondered about the vaguely oxymoronic feel to ‘constructive criticism’. (Who hasn’t heard the old knock: ‘military intelligence’?) If I’m being constructive, being critical must be somehow OK. If it’s for ‘someone’s own good’, it’s quite acceptable to be both ‘truthful’ and (oh yeah) just a bit nasty in the bargain. Right speech would compel us to vet our communication not only through the ‘is it good for them’ criterion; but equally through the empathic, compassionate, positive ‘sieve’ as well. Get all those spiteful lumps out, before the thought flows trippingly off one’s tongue.

And timeliness. When a ‘gem’ is shared may be the difference between a thought heard and a thought ignored or even resented. Perhaps pointing out that the weather is finally warming to one’s neighbour, thrilled with the deal that he’s just made for a snow blower, is an observation a bit badly timed.

And so, as Jeeves moves gracefully about the flat, fluffing pillows and shifting floral arrangements, he speaks when invited to do so, with clarity and frankness (“You know Jeeves, I could do better justice to this song – if I knew what the words meant”, opines Bertie; “Oh, I doubt that sir”, from Jeeves); with every intention of easing his employer’s confusion, frustration, and ignorance – without ever once disturbing a self-satisfied feather. Right speech to be sure.