I’ve taken some time in August away from blogging, but I’m glad to be back—though I’m sad that summer is coming to an end.
I hope everyone had a wonderful summer!
Today I want to talk today about transitions--
Buddha teaches us that we live in a constant state of impermanence. Nothing ever stays the same. We are always changing.
Modern science teaches us that the cells of our bodies are completely renewed every seven years.
What stays the same? Where do we find continuity?
So we are always changing. But at certain times in our lives, those changes are more abrupt.
Many of the people I work with come to writing in times of transition: we feel, in these liminal times, out of joint. Our old meaning-making system no longer makes sense; we need to retell our story, enter into a new relationship to story, to meaning, to ourselves. Or we feel a calling to share the wisdom and the wackiness and wonder of what we have just gone through—this is a natural human need.
As we retell our story, amazing things can happen.
The first step, I believe, is acceptance: first we must accept what is, and what was. Without acceptance, we remain stuck, stagnate.
But that while acceptance is crucial, its tonality is muted; we usually need to accept things that we perceive as negative. There’s little excitement or bliss in acceptance.
But what if we meet transitions, or at least try to meet transitions, with more openness? Recently, I’ve been thinking about a more dynamic approach to transition, a easing into wonder:
I’m excited by the ways in which the story that we think we are living ends up turning and becoming a different story. You are working within one frame, and then something happens, and you find yourself able to peer into the world from a bigger frame of reference, from a bigger, perhaps even metaphysical, perspective.
The event that you think is the worst thing in your life ends up being, on some level, your greatest teacher.
I’m working with a client, Chris Mattson, who is writing a book about her path to becoming a healer. When her teenage son died of a brain tumor, she was sure it was the worst thing that could happen in her life. She was distraught.
And yet, something amazing happened. The horrible moment that his body was removed from the house she felt certain that she wouldn’t be able to go on, but her husband asked her to take a walk on the beach, and she did. And in that walk, instead of falling into the pit she was afraid of, she was able to connect with the moon, with the water, with the air and the sky and the sand beneath her feet.
And in that connection she heard the voice of her son, and she felt a connection to him that was so solid nothing could take it away. In that connection, a new life opened, and in that opening, she found a level of healing that she had never known before, and that led her to becoming a healer who can help others heal.
This is an extreme case, but what if we met our life with the curiosity and openness of unknowing?
I’m not saying this is easy, or that Chris didn’t –and doesn’t–continue to feel loss and pain, or that an almost unimaginable tragedy like hers is something that anyone could wish for or treat lightly. Or that I don’t feel loss and pain even at something as benign as another summer coming to an end.
Loss and pain are natural parts of our animal existence. A friend of mine has a bird, and once a year its feathers molt and the bird is in great pain, its loud squawks taking over the house. In the wild, the bird’s feathers would be plucked out by other birds, but this task falls on my friend and her partner, who must pull the feathers out themselves.
Loss and pain cannot be completely escaped. But in addition to the pain of the world, there might be something else: not just acceptance, but some miracle, some opening, some unexpected who-knows-what that also comes.
I’m trying to start this new academic year, when we all go back into our routines, into our busy-ness, and the full weeks of more work, more homework, more regularity, reminding myself of the wonder that is around us all the time, and remind myself that change—which we also live with all the time-- is a portal into that wonder.
I’d love to hear from you and hear how you approach transitions.
After the Republican and Democratic conventions, which took a lot of airspace, I’m finding my thoughts about them are settling; it’s been a time for me to think about on my own political engagement, fears and hopes. I hope you enjoy some of my reflections about these topics below.
(notice that I'm not infecting this blog space with an image of the other presidential nominee)
Fight, Flight and Mindfulness in this Election Season
Nine years ago, at the start of the Obama/McCain election, Eric and I began the process of filing for permanent residency in Canada. After almost eight years of a Bush presidency, we wanted another option if McCain came into office. We’d been active in our demonstrations against the Iraq war; we were convinced that declaring an “axis of evil” was not a path to peace, but instead a path to more violence; we worried about a possible war with Iran; and we didn’t want to raise our children in a country at war. In the election season we spent many weekends in New Hampshire campaigning for Obama. The week Obama was elected president, our permanent residency papers arrived.
Now eight years later, our permanent residency has run out. Because we didn’t use it, we lost it. Today, I’m starting to hear people talk about moving if Trump becomes president. I can understand the sentiment, but eight years later, I’m in a different place in my life. And our kids are at a different place in theirs.
When I said offhandedly it’s too bad we let our permanent residency run out, Gabriel, our sixteen year old, looked at me askance: you can’t walk away, he said, you need to stay to support and defend what you believe in.
I was proud of him for his quick response to my offhand remark--proud of his sense of home, of belonging, of responsibility.
This fall, I’m going to be going to New Hampshire again to canvass for the democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and I plan to do everything I can to keep Trump out of power.
But that’s not really what I want to write about here—though I do urge and encourage everyone reading this to step up this election season and do what you can to keep Trump out of power for peace at home and abroad; for the environment; for race issues; for the supreme court and for so many other reasons.
What I really want to reflect on is my own fight or flight instinct, and the alternative that mindfulness has taught me.
Eight years ago, I understood both fight and flight. I understood that there is a time for each and value in each. That is true. But somehow those alternatives were in a state of high duality, and very charged.
Mindfulness taught me not only to look outward to the danger, and to possible actions, but also to look inward to my mental and emotional responses to danger. And in doing so I realized that while I can stand up for what I believe in strongly and fight for my values, and while I can also flee or move to look for a better way of life and for new opportunities, I can also cultivate my own capacity for acceptance and for internal peace, whatever the external circumstances.
I don’t mean to suggest that I have arrived at a state of constant inner peace. Far from it. But I do believe that in looking for internal peace and equanimity and a sense of safety in our own lives, we must start with ourselves: fighting and fleeing is not going to be enough to feel at peace. And I also believe that finding peace and safety in our own lives will help create peace and safety in the world.
Sitting with my fight or flight reactions—my strong desire to stand up for peace and what I believe in; my strong desire to protect my children and myself—I realized that I am never only responding to the present moment. I am also responding to the times I felt scared and paralyzed as a child. I am responding to generations of anti-semitism, the fear of pogroms and repression, that my ancestors lived under. And I am responding to hundreds of years, thousands of years, of culture and responses and reactions.
But when I meditate, or just simply remember to come back to my breath, I cultivate a larger perspective. I can zoom way out and see the countless tragedies of history: the wars and injustices, the disasters that were not, despite people’s very best efforts, averted. Long before I was born, innocent children were needlessly killed and nothing I can do now can change that. And the world went on. Other children were born and smiled and laughed and experienced very great joy and accomplished beautiful things and loved well and fiercely and made the world a better place. And some of those children had children who died innocently. And some did not. This happened in the past. And it happens now in the present. And will happen, too, in the future.
For me, being mindful is coming into acceptance; it is coming into the present moment just as it is, and it is being here, now, with all the world’s largeness and smallness at once.
In this election, I will do what I can to spread love and understanding and to resist hate and violence. I will work for Hillary and continue to support a progressive agenda and vision of greater equality, greater sustainability. And I will try at the same time to cultivate peace and appreciation for the moments that we do have, for the chance to act in accordance with our beliefs—to work for change, though we never know what the future holds.
I know that there will be times of fighting and of fleeing again in my life—on the large or small scale. But I also believe that even as we fight and even as we flee looking for a better life, we can still hold some equanimity and stillness within us—or some memory of what it is like to know deep peace and know others who have known deep peace. This deep peace and belief in peacefulness can be another legacy that we carry within us, wherever we go, and whatever the future may hold.
So many people want to write and so many people have this idea that if they could just write and get published they’d feel fulfilled and happy.
So why is it that so many published writers are unhappy?
On the one hand, there is more and more scientific evidence that writing makes people emotionally and physically healthy. Researchers like James Pennebaker and Lewis Mehl-Madrona have done great work in this area. And yet, the cliché of the tormented, struggling writer points to a different truth. There have been numerous studies showing the higher rates of mental illness and distress in writers, from Kay Jamison’s famous study linking madness and creativity to more recent ones about the increased risk of suicide among writers.
I’m choosing to share my own story, because this is a paradox that I’ve tried to untangle.
My father was a writer and I grew up surrounded by writers and books. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I always wanted to be a writer myself.
Fast forward: I grew up, got a PhD in English, and started to publish my creative writing widely. And yet, it wasn’t making me happy. I loved to write, but it also made me anxious. I questioned and turned things over. I felt driven and unsettled.
And truth be told, many of the successful writers I knew and spent time with also seemed anxious and unsettled. Even though their writing was deeply important and engrossing, well-being wasn’t exactly the quality they seemed to be cultivating.
Then, in my mid 30s, two of my good friends—both successful, published writers—committed suicide.
What was going on?
Maybe it had nothing to do with writing, but I was worried. We don’t need to wrack our brains to come up with a list of unhappy writers or ones who committed suicide. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf are just a few who come to mind.
Nor had I noticed that my father’s writing, much as he loved it, never gave him much peace or equanimity. Perhaps I had inherited this writing-bug as a kind of habit energy. Perhaps it was time for me to reconsider what I was doing with my life and put my energy elsewhere.
I had two little children, and I wanted to be present for them—and for myself—-completely. I wanted to cultivate not just questions, but also answers, acceptance, inner peace and well-being. These were qualities I wanted to be able to give my children, and I needed to find them for myself in order to be able to pass them on.
So I focused on being a mom and on looking deeply at my inner life. I could see that while so many people think what they need for happiness is outside rewards, when those rewards come they often don’t bring the sense of completion and fulfillment that people expect. Where then, do we get our happiness from, our sense of fulfillment and completion?
I wanted to get to the root causes. I continued to teach writing, but my “me” time was spent on therapy, meditation and yoga—not on writing. If I could listen to and understand myself, maybe I could understand the roots of my psyche and emotional life.
After a lot of inner healing, I came to see that I could be my own witness. I didn’t need the outside confirmation that I thought I needed. In the process, my physical body became healthier. I became a better mom. Eventually I felt I had something I could offer to other people as a healing modality.
But something else happened, too. I noticed that during those years that I had stopped writing, I actually hadn’t. I couldn’t stop writing and I didn’t want to.
I still loved to read. And I loved to write. And I loved to teach. That wasn’t going away.
So I found myself with another question: how can I—how can we—write toward well-being and wholeness while still creating quality work?
Was that possible?
I’ve taught literature now for over a decade, and while I see the deep divide between the supposed rewards and the actual rewards of writing for many people, that doesn’t have to be our reality.
I’ve seen that we can write with the intention for wellness and wholeness and the intention for great, well-crafted, complicated work that looks at the whole range of human experience. The complexity of writing and our intention toward well-being need not be in contradiction. But we need to be aware of the potential challenge, write consciously and look deeply at ourselves.
Over time, I also came to see my friends’ lives and deaths differently. Certainly it wasn’t writing that had made them unhappy; for them, as for so many, their despair was rooted in a variety of other causes. Writing was one of the bright spots in their lives. But I wonder if it might have been even brighter had their writing been aligned with an intention of healing, without worrying that would compromise their craft and art.
In order to do this, I believe we need to approach our writing practice with certain parameters. Here are some practical guidelines that I offer to my students:
1. Write with the intention of wholeness and of health.
I used to write with the goal of expressing how I felt in the moment, in both a beautiful and original way. But now, I always ask myself whether that expression also leads in some way toward health for myself and my readers.
2. Create a safe place for yourself when you write.
Make sure you have a safe physical and emotional space to write in. Make sure, for example, that no one will inadvertently read what you write if you don’t want them to.
3. Write first for yourself, without concern about external or internal judgment.
I try to put aside how “good” my writing is and write the first draft as freely as possible, letting myself really get into the flow and step out of self-judgment. Edits can come later.
4. Ground in and feel your body as you write—don’t get cut off and stay solely in your head.
Writers can feel removed from their bodies. I know I can get completely absorbed in my writing, so I try to set a time and take breaks to get up, move my body and breathe consciously. This not only makes my body healthier, but my writing feels lighter and more dynamic.
5. Be comfortable with making mistakes, being imperfect and existing just as you are.
Again, stay away from self-judgment. We write partly to explore and learn. We cannot learn and grow without making mistakes.
6. Remember your writing is not you. You are bigger than your writing and bigger than the sum of your work.
Sometimes I still get trapped in the false belief that if my writing is not “good,” there is something less-than about me. But I also know that this is old habit energy from my education, and from generations and generations of ideas held in our society. We are all worthy. And we are all more than the sum of our parts.
7. Hold onto love as you write.
For me, everything that I value comes down, on some level, to love. If you write about something that makes you angry—injustice, violence, prejudice—let that anger be rooted in your love and concern for the world.
8. Write the best work you can and concentrate on your craft.
But let the flip side of “good” be not bad, but interesting, worthwhile and full of growth. Perfect is boring. When writing, consider the Japanese idea of Wabi-Sabi—the beauty of imperfection and transience.
9. Don’t forget to smile while you work.
Remember, creativity doesn’t have to be serious. Have a good time!
I blog about creativity, writing, yoga, meditation, justice, women, the environment and integrated well being for the individual and society