The Toxicity Twins

Letting go is an invitation to cease clinging to anything: be it an idea, a possession, an experience, a time in our lives, a point of view, a desire. It is a conscious decision to give up coercing, resisting, struggling. In exchange, we are granted the gift of wholesome acceptance, free of attraction to or rejection of; free of the stickiness of wanting, liking or disliking. Letting go is the allowing of things to be as they are. (from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are)

The ‘stickiness’, to which Kabat-Zinn refers, can (ironically) be a very ‘slippery’ creature, creeping into our thoughts and desires when we least expect; contriving all manner of justifications, rationalizations to support our choices; setting its hooks in ways that make it very difficult to shake loose. When we meditate, when we still the mind and open ourselves to a period of silence without ‘benefit’ of distraction or busyness, we are very often fertile ground for this little critter to nest in – let’s just call him attachment (or his equally dark twin, avoidance). Christening them two of the three poisons, Buddhist teachings feel sufficiently strongly about these two to assign them (together with ‘ignorance of the truth’ – i.e., self-delusion or confusion) primary responsibility for the dissatisfaction and unhappiness we experience in life. (And here I thought it was the Leaf’s not winning a cup since 1967.) Attachment (aka: addiction, obsession, codependence, control, greed, jealousy, conditionality – to name but a few aliases) and avoidance (aversion, phobic anxiety, hatred and resentment) are evidently a potent pair indeed.

Mindfulness practice is, at core, a bringing of awareness to a situation (or, in the words of a dear friend, ‘shedding the light of consciousness on. . .’) so that one is less ‘unconsciously’ controlled by it and becomes more an observer of it – and accordingly is better equipped to move past it (or to ‘let it go’ in Kabat-Zinn’s terms). Addressing the above two ‘poisons’ is yet another instance of this practice. Typically mindfulness practice suggests some variation on the ‘name and return’ protocol: when we become aware that we’ve been distracted away from the breath, we identify or label in some succinct way the source of the distraction (‘thought’, ‘sensation’, etc.); and return to the cycle of our breathing. In situations where the distraction is a little more stubborn, relentless, it is sometimes helpful to ‘address it’ directly. It’s sometimes useful to ask ‘what’s the pull?’ Not in the usual sense of attempting to ‘figure out’ the ‘why’ we keep returning to a particular image or situation (and only serving to get more caught up in the ‘intellectual’ aspect of the distraction); but rather taking the observer’s awareness to the spot, thought, or feeling that insists on ‘pulling us away’. This might involve shifting one’s attention away from the ‘stimulus’ – the object of our distraction – and back to the observer’s response to it: “what is arising in me as I sit in the presence of ________?”; “what do I experience?”

Notice too how you are relating to this image, thought, sensation. (Getting back to our two poisons), Am I attached to it – obsessing about it, ‘needing’ it? Fearful of its going, leaving, of losing it? Am I needing to control it; having it be a particular way, turning out in a particular fashion – to ensure my happiness (the conditionality of I’ll be content if and only if. . .)? Alternately, do I just need it to ‘go away’ – am I averse to or avoiding of this image, thought, or sensation? Do I resent its presence, perhaps rejecting it, even ‘hating’ it? These are not ‘analyses’ of what you are experiencing; they are simply suggested questions that may help identify the nature of your ‘relationship with’ the experience. Once established as attachment or rejection/avoidance, the work is done – no need to get caught up in the why.

Letting go of the need to have or make things be different than they are (in this moment) – or its flip side, lamenting that things are as they are right now – is an important element of this process as well. This is the letting be of what is, trusting that change is inevitable; circumstance will evolve in its own time; and equally we cannot hurry or force that process. Skills that come into play here are non-reaction and acceptance, the latter seen as one’s ‘agreement to experience a situation, to follow a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit’ (online definition). During meditation, a helpful exercise in this regard is to metaphorically place the person or image of a ‘triggering’ (preoccupying) situation on a chair – directly in front of and facing you, as you sit. (This is the metaphoric opposite of trying to avoid it.) Gently observe him/her/it. Develop a benign tolerance of his/her/it’s presence. No need to engage or respond – just observe, ‘sit with’. Being human, the investment we have in the object before us will change, usually diminish, as we remain, non-reactive and accepting of its presence. Again, back to the toxic tandem, the aspects of our relationship that ‘keep alive’ the intensity of this unholy bond with the overly desired or the intensely shunned is the degree to which we are attached or averse – not something inherent in the object itself.

A lovely poem (The Guest House) by the 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, captures the essence of this unconditional ‘welcoming’ of circumstance – and the accompanying capacity to let go of our attachments and aversions:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

One final thought about letting go. Perhaps the most profound example of this process is that of grieving a loss. In his very helpful little volume (Grieving Mindfully), Sameet Kumar makes reference to a five-step, sequenced protocol facilitating closure, one that is equally applicable to much less weighty circumstances:

Examining our regrets around. . . (the apology)

Cultivating compassion toward. . . (the forgiveness)

Cultivating empathy / understanding of. . .(the loving)

Thanking for the gifts from. . .(the learning)

Letting go of . . . (the goodbye)

PP (post-post, as it were): We watched Inside Job last evening, a film that chronicles the 2008 financial crisis triggered by (of all things) greed and unaccountability in the US money market system. Great example of the extreme (world-wide) impact of attachment (and the later avoidance of responsibility) of some very selfish folks. Talk about your ‘Money for nothing (and your chicks for free!)

Rules of Engagement

In military operations, the rules of engagement determine when, where, and how force shall be used. The rules, while they may be made public, are typically only fully known to the force that intends to use them. (Online definition)

For better or worse, the same ‘rules’ increasingly appear to apply to verbal communication – or what we used to call dialogue. A number of elements, most of which are not particularly new to this arena (that of conversing with each other), have begun to dominate it. Not only that, but have also become highly celebrated in the bargain. Lead story in the Arts section of the Globe this past Tuesday featured an interview with Kelly Oxford, ‘Calgary blogger and Twitter queen’. Her daily ‘tweets’ are reportedly followed on a regular basis by those bastions of compassion and right speech, Howard Stern and Jimmy Kimmel (together with 100,000 other lesser lights) and are infused with her ‘snarky sense of humour’ as she posts ‘straight-up’ observations on motherhood, pop culture, and the media. I was particularly struck by the working title of a memoir-in-progress: Whenever I feel intimidated by someone, I imagine them drinking out of a hamster water bottle. I expect Charlie Sheen can’t be too far behind in the growing legion of Kelly ‘followers’, as he spews his ‘Violent Torpedo of Truth. . .’ to anyone who’ll listen (and lots appear ready to do just that).

Dialogue: generally seen as a conversation with two or more participants, typically involving an open exchange of opinions, and often representing differing points of view. 100,000 would seem to qualify. Posting remarks on the internet would meet criteria as open expression. And I’m guessing that observations as “Julianne Moore probably took the role of Sarah Palin because actors win awards for playing handicapped people” likely represent a point of view that might differ both from that of Ms. Moore and Ms. Palin. So what’s the problem? Possibly none, if the throngs of disciples are taken as validation.

I suppose it comes down to intention. I intend to hold this person or that, this opinion or that up to public scrutiny, having determined that such is deserved and wanting. I intend to convey these comments in language that is sufficiently challenging and caustic to seize the attention of others – but, of course, just short of being libelous. I intend to persuade. I intend to correct. I intend to instruct. I intend to demonstrate how much I know — and how little you know. I intend to remain sufficiently remote / inaccessible – so as to both have time to consider and craft my responses and to remain insulated from the face-to-face, the immediate. I intend to be witty, notorious, dominant, and popular. I intend to entertain at this person’s or that opinion’s expense. I intend to do the ‘right thing’ – for just possibly the wrong reasons.

A very few days before reading of Ms. Oxford’s rise in the realm of the social network, I had occasion and the great good fortune to hear Karen Armstrong interviewed on CBC’s Tapestry. Ms. Armstrong, is a widely published religious scholar (or typist, if wishing to avoid all the usual, unsolicited commentary reserved for ‘religious scholars’) who has most recently come to the fore with her newest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, chronicling the commissioning and writing of a ‘charter of compassion’ following her receipt of a TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) award in 2008. The core message of both interview and book is to explore alternatives in how we manage relationship; in particular how we communicate / dialogue in relationship. And by extension, how our highly entertained and entertaining, validated (if by no other measure than our attention paid to. . .), imitated, and promoted style of dialoguing just may be achieving little more than self-aggrandizement moving us away from the very ‘goals’ we seek (or at least put out that we are seeking) to achieve through witty repartee.

A number of abiding ‘ethics’ are raised and examined. Armstrong is invited to comment on the widely embraced practice of ‘hurting’ one’s partner in dialogue (unfortunately often one with whom we have significant differences of opinion), insulting, humiliating, denigrating to make one’s point – with the somewhat ironic expectation that this will move the ‘conversation’ forward. Seeking to dominate one’s ‘partner’, treating the engagement as a competition (to be won or lost – generally by ‘proving’ one’s opponent to be an idiot). Operating from ill-informed (but confident in our ‘complete knowledge of . . ‘), stereotypic postures – making the generalized verbal swipes ‘easier’. Seeking to convince, persuade.

Drawing on sources as far flung as the teachings of Confucius, Gandhi, Buddha, and Socrates, Armstrong provides a compelling alternative to the above, all rooted in the principles of compassion as she defines them; and all essentially built around a core principle that she views as common to all religions: Never do to others what you would not want them to do to you. As for methodology, she suggests a model based on Socratic dialogue – much simpler than it sounds at first blush: the goal of any discussion is to ‘learn how little we know’; entering conversation with gentleness and the intention, expectation of ourselves being changed; seeking a resolution versus a domination – and, if a win-lose, demonstrating compassion for the vanquished, seeking to improve not punish; demonstrating respect for the other.

Armstrong identifies Mindfulness as the 5th step in the charter’s 12-step process, incorporating many of the elements common to this practice: self-examination (holding up a mirror to one’s own opinions, behaviours, prejudices, stereotypes); cultivating a ‘first practice’ of self-compassion (forgiving oneself); metta (extending compassion to others); and letting go of one’s ego-investment (in dialogue) – detaching from oneself by becoming more an observer and less a participant. I suppose the approach won’t sell many tabloids or rack up a bunch of views on YouTube – but then I’m not sure that’s the goal.


Got Change for a . . . Personality?

“I’m home – just going upstairs to change”, my usual greeting coming in the door at the end of the day. “Into whom?”, my wife’s typical and wry response as we share our little chuckle. Indeed. But it does beg the question . . .
Usually ones to do our homework and heading off to St. James’ Cathedral this week for Evensong, we’d wanted to be well-prepared for the start of a series of homilies on T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Having somehow ‘skipped over’ Murder in the Cathedral – must have been in one of the many books my dog ate during college days – Nicola and I re-watched Becket (the 1964 film with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole) and listened to a dramatic reading of Eliot’s 1935 work. And found myself musing over the same question: can, do people change – really?

The film and poem examine any number of conflicted relationships, most particularly that between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, culminating in the latter’s murder in December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral as the now Archbishop prepared for evening prayer. Becket, a Saxon ‘survivor’ of the Normans’ conquest of England a century earlier, had become a close companion and ‘playmate’ of the young Norman king, as the pair drank and womanized their way through these turbulent times. Henry marveled at and envied Becket’s wisdom and cool, non-reactive demeanor, recognizing (and exploiting) these characteristics for what they were – elements of wit and temperament that set Becket apart from not only the boorish barons (who would eventually murder Becket) – but from Henry himself as he blustered and railed his way through the early part of his reign; alienating even as he secured what he thought would satisfy himself. Henry’s coup de grace, ill-conceived as it turned out, was to have been his appointment of his friend to the role of Archbishop, already having named him Chancellor of the Exchequer (essentially, minister of finance). Then watching as his bawdy buddy appeared to take his new job entirely too seriously, attempting to enforce the Church’s position and, in the bargain, cramping Henry’s authoritarian and largely arbitrary style.
Henry of course, viewing this as the clerical equivalent of biting the hand that fed, became enraged, eventually ordering Becket’s murder; but never reconciling himself to his awareness that the very elements of his friend that had so enthralled him in their early days, were the self-same ones that would frustrate him at the end: compassion, honour and integrity, planfulness and calculation, loyalty and homage to a ‘higher power’ – be it secular (king) or spiritual (God), and the relegation of ego to secondary status. Had Becket changed? Not at all. He’d simply found a vehicle more in consonance with his pre-existing value system – and Henry knew it! Henry too, for his part, remained what he ever was – expedient, opportunistic, self-serving, and political – having Becket canonized, establishing churches, as ‘penance’, etc. – essentially trading on his former friend’s death. And hating Becket’s infernal holding up of the mirror to his own twisted visage.
I had occasion to meet with a friend recently who had endured a number of significant losses in the past few years. She described her hard-fought resolve to come to terms with elements in her temperament and style that she felt had mired her in her sadness and had both hindered her healing and tainted her outlook for the future. The principle ‘villain’ it seems was a co-dependency, sometimes seen as a self-defeating predilection toward inadvertently supporting the very circumstances in one’s relationships against which one most struggles. The vehicle that often mediates this process is the act of enabling – wherein one becomes overly invested in particular outcomes, develops porous interpersonal boundaries, makes oneself responsible for the behaviours of others; and is, of course, ultimately angered, frustrated and disappointed when ‘nothing changes’. My friend had worked long and hard at eradicating this trait, when she was emailed a ‘personality test’ that purported to evaluate an individual’s ‘type’ amongst a choice of nine. “Damn! I’m still the ‘caregiver’”, her disheartened awareness.
So whether Becket (or Henry), my acquaintance, or even Popeye (“I yam what I yam” – with apologies to God and Moses), my answer to my wife’s query must be: “Just the clothes – the rest of me stays the same”. And having fessed up to that truth, just what is our work, how do we address those pieces of ourselves that (karmically) continue showing up at our door – until we get it right. (Think Bill Murray in Groundhog Day!) What do we do with those predispositions that continue to direct us, explicitly or worse, in background?
I believe we do have some options, generally focusing, in one way or another, on two elements: increased self-knowledge (to coat-tail on last week’s posting) and increased self-acceptance. Becket, if we’re to acknowledge Burton’s interpretation of the man, was acutely aware of his earlier limitations and lack of fulfillment, experienced repeatedly as an inability to return love, no matter how deserving the person or persons might be on the other side. He struggled chronically with the ‘too easy’ solution (remaining a carousing pal to Henry, a ‘sheltered’ monk in France, or a token primate). Eliot’s poem so eloquently examines Becket’s awareness that, until fully accepting of his role as martyr, he would be destined to repeat his past ‘experiments’. Infuriating to Henry was Becket’s clarity (and readiness to speak it) on this point.
Mindfulness practice is but one of many vehicles facilitating this two-fold process. Regular practice promotes an opening to (self-knowledge) and an allowing of (self-acceptance). It lobbies against a compulsive need to be someone else, somewhere else. Clarity of thought is more available as one hones the practice of letting go of attachments (those controlling, obsessive preoccupations that consume us; or those much-desired outcomes which, when left unrealized, leave us sadly disappointed); and avoidances, the need to defend against an inevitable. We are who we are. Get used to it. Better yet, work with it.