Monday, May 29, 2017

Amity and Enmity

Here is the thing
Or, rather, here is one of the things.
Here is A thing...just one that is worth considering:

People are going to disappoint you.
Your feelings are going to get hurt.
This is a fact.

Sometimes you are going to feel neglected, forgotten, discarded, dissed, unimportant, and disregarded by people you count on or care about.

And it isn't always because they are unkind or thoughtless or shitty friends or selfish people.

Sometimes they are.
People can do some heinous, awful, terrible things.

But I am thinking about the little injuries of the ego. Those moments we get our feathers all ruffled because someone is not behaving the way we think they should.

It isn't always because we are right and they are wrong.
Our "should" does not eclipse fully an other's reality, no matter how strongly we feel they ought to just do what we want them to do. Or be who and how we want them to be.

People are going to fail to live up to our expectations sometimes, because they are also bobbing out there in the sea of life, juggling things and twisting themselves up in knots trying to just get by. Trying to just stay afloat. Trying to navigate other obligations and situations that might not have you right in the center of it all.

They are going to fail to return a call or a text or an email
They are going to miss your birthday.
They are going to "leave the conversation" and ignore the invitation.
They are going to miss the post in which you told the whole world what is happening for you.
They are going to miss that you two broke up. Or you two are now together.
They are going to go MIA and radio silent when you are your most chatty and desirous of their company, friendship, or insight.

Which means, they are not always going to do or say the right thing at the right moment. Or be there when you think they should be. Or show up when you think they should. People are not always going to respond to (or "like" or "love" or even acknowledge) your latest post in social media or respond to your latest crisis or drama the way you think they should.

And it's not necessarily because they don't care.

When our feelings are hurt, we can always lash out and blame others. We can chastise them with all our bitterness, crossing our arms in self righteous and self pitying rancor. And, sure, sometimes they are responsible for hefty load of that pain. They really are.

But not always.

And lashing out at others for our bruised egos and unfulfilled expectations is not necessarily going to ameliorate anything.

And that is what I am thinking about today, as I have witnessed a handful of otherwise really awesome people hold so tightly to grudges, there is no more room in them to hold much else. Because when the chip on your shoulder gets big enough, it's hard to be a shoulder to lean on.

I disappoint a lot of people. I am an overextended introvert with a lot on my plate--including daily requests for my time and company. I can't keep up with it all. And the people who love me, get that. The people who don't, don't. But I have also felt that disappointment, that hurt, that sense of being forgotten. I know how indignant it has made me, how my hurt gives rise to a few fired up explanations that all seem to point to me being in the right and someone else fucking up.

But I know better.
Because I know I don't ever hurt anyone intentionally. And I have only been hurt--really hurt and knowingly so--by one or two people in my 41+ years of life so far. And, the small slights and stabs of life-in-relation-to-others has also taught me a lot about who I am and what matters most. So, I am learning that a wounded ego need not lead to a wounded soul. I am learning not to conflate the two. I know, for the most part, we are all just doing the best we can with the resources, energy, and time we have. Day by day. And if my inner world is THAT vulnerable to someone else's humanness, I might want to take a look at that before I point the finger outward.

Regardless of what the other person did/didn't do, when the ego is hurt or our heart feels chipped, we can learn an awful lot by looking inward and questioning how our own projections, assumptions, interpretations, and expectations are complicit in the hurt.

We can ask, "What else HAS to be true for this assumption of mine about ABC to be true?"
We can ask, "What am I projecting onto this person?"
We can ask, "Have I just been asking everything and everyone to accommodate my inner needs without communicating directly or clearly why I need anything at all?"

You know, let's face it, hurt feelings can lead to a lot of strange and faulty translations. When we are wounded, we are more likely to critique others, focus on their failings, write them off, or assume the worst. And, right again, sometimes that is all spot on.

But not always.

Sometimes we are so blinded by our own needs and demands we are incapable of seeing how much someone else might be struggling.

A long time ago, someone I love very much was in the ER after attempted suicide. I could barely see straight as I rushed to the hospital. I am sure I sped, drove erratically, and ignored just about everything else that came my way for the next week or two. A few people knew where I was and what I was grappling with. A lot of people did not.

When your feelings are hurt, it's good to remember that an individual may be facing something you are NEVER going to hear about. And their absence, silence, unavailability, or erratic behavior is about what is happening in their life, not yours.

And your feelings? That is mostly about what is happening in you. Not them.

Not everyone makes public what is going on inside or behind the scenes of their lives, in which THEY (not us) are the central subject. And, because we don't always know why someone is not available or saying the things we want them to say or showing up in the ways WE read as love and care, it's a good idea to at least include--if not privilege and begin with--introspection.

Before reaction
Re-action.
The reproduction of our usual stories and interpretations.
The inner story where we are always the center and right and everything else is marginal and wrong.

What we feel when we are hurt can be informative. It need not be definitive.
So, maybe pause before you lambast people or write them off or write the manifesto that everyone else is crap and you've been done wrong. Maybe take a little look inside and see what all the fuss and hurt is really about.

Self study.
Self awareness.
Self inquiry.

These are some really important steps in the response cycle.
If you want to feel less like the victim, that is.
If you want to recover a sense of agency, that is.
If you want your response to life to be effective.
If you find that you are going through certain experiences over and over with lots of people.

As my mom said many times to me when I was growing up, "if it's 'everyone else,' it's probably you."
Among the best insights I have ever been given.
We are the common denominator in our lives, so we might as well start there.

Those who too easily blame, project, and hold tightly to a grudge might not be so surprised to discover how unpleasant that is to be around.

And, in my messy, human, flawed, learning experience, reflective people are infinitely more adept at life than reactive people. Introspection leads to better questions--of ourselves, and of others.

So, before you assume, inquire. Before you react, reflect.

People are dealing with an awful lot you don't always see or know or understand.
Try to remember that.








Monday, March 28, 2016

I do...but do I know why?


I often feel super dazed and confused when I am asked to officiate a wedding or write a ceremony for a couple.  In oh so many ways, I am the least likely wedding officiant. I am flattered, honored. But my first response to an engagement is rarely wide-eyed or excited or congratulatory. It's not that I am cynical (not exactly), but I wouldn't say I am an enthusiastic proponent of marriage across the board, either. I look around most days and am hard pressed to identify a marraige that I admire or that inspires me...which is always a great time to get curious about whatever it is in me that I am meeting through my reticence. 

But when you are invited literally to marry people, you start to ask what it's all for, too. 
Why do it?

There are practical and pragmatic and symbolic reasons to marry, of course. 
There are passionate and political and beautiful reasons to take vows and formalize your relationship.
But it's an oddly interesting position to be the one holding that sacred space, much less helping people clarify and articulate the real promises they are making and the actual vision they are creating. 

I wonder how often people are even gazing in the same general direction, much less looking at the same vision.  

Too many people seem to just, well, collapse into marriage without asking why or how. So much emphasis is placed on the "whether" or "what" that they lose sight of these essential questions. Why marry? And what does it even mean? The momentum or the expectations or the "where I want to be by age___" sometimes take over and eclipse any sense of what it actually means, day to day. All too often I witness the bewilderment and disappointment of couples who perhaps mistook their wedding for a marriage or based their vows on abstract projections that have little to do with their actual lives. Frustrated or scared or hurt or disenchanted, people often choose to suck it up rather than communicate honestly about where they are and how they feel. Because they "made vows."

So many vague promises are made that seek to restrict and control what shifts, as individuals and as a couple. As though growth and transformation are threats. As though we can predict, forecast, and control what and who we are becoming instead of vowing to really SEE and support who we are becoming. Yet most people really want to be cheered on in their growth, to feel supported in the challenging processes of exploring and evolving and becoming who they are becoming.

I spend A LOT of time with people who are healing from broken down relationships they expected to be fairy tales. People who grapple with the sense that a perfect marriage meant you'd never change. People who realize their codependency isn't passion, their resignation isn't devotion, and their paralysis isn't very healthy. People who diminish themselves to make the other person happy. People who are starved for genuine connection, because their partner stopped noticing who they were becoming and no longer knows them at all. Even when they share a house. Even though they share a bed. People who make great roommates, but terrible lovers. People who are stuck in patterns they have no energy to redress or change, though it's killing them inside. People who can't even have the most basic of conversations for fear of being shut down, pushed away, or attacked.
And listen, I am not saying this is true in all marriages. 
There are some marriages I absolutely admire and from which I glean hope: couples who are present to one another, and honest, and generous but independent. Supportive, passionate people who you just know--because you see, feel, and hear it in all the subtle and obvious ways-- belong together, in this way. At this time.

But that is the issue I see the most. People gamble that who they will become is as simple and seamless as saying "I promise." Life rarely goes according to our plans, though. People grow and change and shift in ways we cannot predict. So, the trick is not auctioning away future you into the confines of some mold you think will make it all perfect. Similarly, so many people find their relationship "commitments" make their worlds smaller--casting suspect on any connections outside the unit so that jealousy, control, and co-dependency eventually (de facto) trump trust, expansiveness, and interdependence. One of the crippling and toxic habits we have around relationship is asking someone to be our everything, and then stripping from them the ability to cultivate and nurture themselves outside of us. It's a recipe for disaster, yet it's so commonly what we expect from the one we "love." 
Relationships of all kinds ought to make our lives bigger, brighter, and richer, right? Yet, very often we only feel secure if our partner's life gets smaller, under careful monitoring. In subtle and overt ways, people demand that Life is forfeit for the security of the relationship, when in fact the relationship ought to be one way we are brought more fully and beautifully INTO Life.

Some marital vows implicitly privilege stagnation over transformation and are based in fear/control rather than the dynamic love that most people really seek. Rarely do I witness couples commit--through their vows--to being fully present and honest about what IS, outside the fairy tales, and to communicating the hard and messy stuff, supporting one another in their respective evolution--even as that might mean growing in different ways.
Most people I work with need to commit to themselves and develop that inner intimacy before they go promising themselves to someone else. That is the marriage we seem to avoid committing to more often. The vows we make to ourselves, through thick and thin, richer or poorer. How will we honor and support our own heart in all the days ahead?

So, every time I am asked to write a wedding ceremony and support a couple in vows to share a life together, I always balk and ask,"WHY on EARTH do you want to do this? Why does this even interest you?" I ask them if they know who the hell they are now and we spend less time projecting into who they think they will be.

It's an odd thing. Writing a ceremony for me is not just giving MY blessing (whatever that is worth), but it's a process of helping two people recognize who they are--here and now--as individuals before they let that get eclipsed by who they think they are as a couple.
I guess I am a hard sell on this.  
Lots of people love with passion and commitment and honesty without a wedding.
Lots of people lose all passion and commitment and openness within a marriage.
I don't think a relationship has to last forever to be valuable or meaningful.
And I don't think the most loving thing we can do is ask someone to sacrifice who they really are in the service of playing along with who we promised (projected, expected) we would be. 
I do think real love is about seeing someone as they really are and letting them see your vulnerable belly, even when it might mean rocking the boat.
So, anyone who wants me to bear witness to the ritual of it all has to know that I am not just interested in their wedding...I am asking them to consider their ideals and ideas of marriage. The why and the how.
So, maybe that is why I get asked. I am just reluctant and leery enough to pose some tough questions before I will say "I do" to them and they say "I do" to a shared vision. And what I am going to write for and about them is not a fairy tale projection that belies or denies the gritty hard work of any real intimacy. 
But, what I am finding--with great delight and a peppering of hope-- is that the few couples for whom I DO end up saying "yes" these days are the ones whose answers suggest that that their relationship brings them more fully and expansively into life rather than collapsing them into one another and withdrawing from life. I say yes to the ones who champion the growth of the one they love, even when it scares the shit out of them and demands that they grow, too. The ones who promise NOT to stagnate or tip toe around the truth just so to keep the boat from rocking. I say "yes" to writing and officiating when I feel myself saying inwardly "yes."
I feel lit up around them and inspired by their care and connection. The way they carry equal measure of awe and honesty as they describe the other. And when I say yes and sit down to write for them, I also get to wrestle with all my own ennui and cynicism, which is undoubtedly a good thing, too. 
It's a humbling and deep undertaking, for which I feel truly grateful.
I do. 





Sunday, July 26, 2015

Still, life

Here is what I remember:
each day that was
Dismembered
our introduction your departure
thick and heavy July night
weighted down stars
a careless moon
Too hot even for dogs and coyotes to quarrel
A night made for owls
A night made for those who see best in the dark
toads, torpid in driveway light
and dung beetles
and drunken moths driven into the flames of citronella candles on the patio
beautiful and stupid
A night like that
no less ordinary than the nights we are born.
Or the nights when we die.
I remember the earth breaking open hours before the dawn would break (and days before something else broke and fell into a crevice in the Great Sand Dunes)
all the things we carry
and miscarry.
I remember that pause before the earth exhales and starts over
reveals the pink glow of new skin
my body made
a grave
space carved
where no space could be
held
a presence(an absence)
an invisible unnameable shape (though in truth I have given you many names)
a year past
and still
stilled
Still, life
still, birth
quietly dilating like the moon
little earthquakes no one feels
on the surface
because they haven’t been called down to their knees yet
the way seeds take root before they flower
clawing downward
away from an unbearable sun
wiping out the shadows that confirm our shape and size and substance
the way seeds shatter and plunge roots into the earth no one sees
the way seeds shatter and bleed into something
beautiful
and stupid
the way sand dunes refuse to hold a shape long enough to memorize
the crevices and wrinkles and hidden lines of newborn and old worn skins
swallowing up the footprints that might have left a trail
a point on a map that shows
you are here
The way we erased one another, bled one another to bone, to dust
How form yields and dissolves and we call it birth
there is a lot I forget
an amnesiac and prodigal twilight,
undecided which way to tilt the axis
keeping vigil in the dead of night
scattering your absence in secret trails
marked only by quartz and a carpet of pine needles and the skull of a mouse
the owl left
How do we forget what we never knew? How do we miss someone we never met?
in passing
and still.
I remember each day 

was
dismembered
and your departure became
my arrival (but it took many names to name it)
your death, nameless
birthed me
named me (so many names it took for me to answer)
on a night like tonight
with a coyote at the fence and four barking dogs
A night made for owls
A night made for those who see best in the dark
the way seeds shatter first
and grow from there.



Thursday, December 25, 2014

Pedestals and Prisons (a work in progress)


This is part of a much longer chapter I am writing on what it is to be named a "spiritual" teacher and how the teachers who have had the greatest impact in my own life are those who have been navigating life, not avoiding it. It's a work in progress, but I figured it was time to share some of what has arisen. 

The trick with being a spiritual teacher is that your main job is to see those before you as whole, holy, and complete. Missing nothing. Lacking nothing. Neither deficient nor in excess.  And when you commit yourself to that work, then that is what you see and call forth in those before you who name you “teacher.” But that means you are going up against some of their most deeply entrenched stories (about themselves, about others) and fears. What is illuminated in the presence of a teacher isn't just the empowering or the beautiful. We meet all our own light and darkness. We meet all that we think of as unlovable and unbearable--not just the stuff we want to share with the world. Because real presence requires we heal back into the original state, at times re-opening and draining old wounds along the way. Yet it is so easy to make what we feel or experience about the teacher vs our own process. It's tempting attribute our insights and awakenings to another, and it's equally easy (so so so easy) to place blame on another when we bump up against our less lovable or loving places.

Some people want an idol. A model. An image. Someone to place on a pedestal and praise (or condemn) in order to divert the focus from the real task of looking inward. When we make it about another person's triumphs or failures, we implicitly hand over our own process of revelation and maturation. We ask them to carry the burden of our spiritual responsibility, focusing our attention on worshiping or measuring their performance of our ideals rather than attending to the perfection of our own inner practice. Whether fawning over someone as perfect or judging them for not being so (and the two are intimately related), the result is the same: We strip them of their full process--the very well from which they teach us anything relevant or meaningful--and in so doing, we reduce our own spiritual process to that of the consumer. We seek guarantees and shiny new things that won't break or falter. The imposition of perfection on others so that we will feel self righteous or safe is how we imprison and diminish. Oftentimes, the ones who praise and adore a teacher most enthusiastically are the same ones who will judge and attack with equal vigor. The adoration and the condemnation are two sides of the same coin: we forget who we are and make it all about someone else. It's precarious, and it further mires us in the disconnect. If the only relationship you have to your "teacher" is one in which they stay the same so that your ego and stories are never challenged, then it's a fragmented and unstable one. That is, you only interact with one aspect of another because it reconfirms what you are already committed to believing and seeing. That is the work of an idol, a model, a statue to praise so you never need enter the temple of your own being.

When we demand that someone else be perfect in order for us to commit to or know our own practice, we miss the point. Tragically so. If our spiritual mettle depends on others living up to some ideal we hold, then it's not a practice. It's more like a performance we watch safely from a distance, inspired by those we ask to proxy the experiences we are too afraid to have ourselves. And then we can just remain spiritual critics in our balcony seats, never once stepping onto that stage under those lights ourselves.

Still, other people want a teacher. A friend. Someone who helps light the pathway home. Not to a better place, but to who we already are. Someone whose flaws we can relate to and through whose humanity we better understand our own divinity. In a teacher, we want someone who has walked though the fires; not someone who has merely learned to avoid them. A teacher is someone who insists, no matter what we are applauding or booing in them, that we look within and stop projecting our own discoveries onto others. Our work as students is to see the divine in all things--not just in the situations or people who kowtow to our demands. We don't give up on that process of exploration when a teacher reveals tender spots or broken pieces or their doubts or transformations. Instead, when we name the "teacher" in all things, we commit to seeing ourselves in all things. A teacher is that which reveals us to ourselves. No more or less. With idols, we see only the other--insisting (often with unconscious zeal) their beauty, their imperfection, their power, their ruin. Through a teacher, we learn to see ourselves. Because the role of a teacher, ultimately, is not to be perfect and uphold our fragile expectations, but rather to awaken us to our own innate perfection. The fact is, the universe--and everyone in it--won't bend and yield to our will, our egos, our ideals. The task we face is to meet the world--and everyone in it--as is and let that unruly, unpredictable, dynamic dance call us home into full presence of (and accountability for) who and what we are.


I have spent the last several months in many conversations with some of my own teachers about what it is each of us is called to do AS a teacher, and why. Because the truth is, as many of you know, being a teacher of this stuff is not easy. It's not just a job, there aren't simple roles we play, there are few securities, and it can be profoundly isolating to do the work one must do in order to serve from a place of truth. If we are any good at what we do, we are humbled and tumbled by Life over and over, and we serve from that.

Some of my teachers were very stubborn in saying that the teacher's love for the student is always far greater (and more spacious, I would add) than the student's love for the teacher. Back then, so in awe of my teachers and what they inspired in me, I had a hard time believing that. It seemed like an unfair and strange thing to assert. After all, why would anyone quantify love like that?

But over the years, I have developed a different understanding of what this suggests. It's not about how much, but how broadly and spaciously. I think it has to do more with the guru principle (a force, a phenomenon) rather than the interactions between two people. When we reflect on "the seat of the teacher" we consider what that relationship allows (provokes, ignites) in us as students. As students, when we name someone "teacher," we give ourselves a safe place to rub against barriers and to meet our shadows and our light, hell...to meet ourselves in new (often disarming) ways. Another teacher reminded me a few years ago that the teacher gives us a safe place to fall apart. To crash, to fall, to unravel, and to struggle. And that is so often what a teacher is for us--a place to feel and reveal our vulnerability as well as a place to remember our strength. The teacher holds space for all of it.

My most formative teachers have been the ones in whose presence I could do just that, and in their eyes I saw only love. Not judgment or even the patronizing coddling of "there, there, it will get better." The teacher doesn't love you because your are flawless or do things perfectly, and s/he will not give/withhold love according to your performance. The teacher loves us through it ALL, because the teacher's only job is to see us as already whole and divine--to insist on it until we are reminded as well and can sustain that vision in an embodied, real way. Your struggles are not grounds to judge or condemn you or exile you. The teacher bears witness to the ups and downs, the spirals out and in, and never stops loving you. We learn this from Yoga Sutra III.18. The teacher sees all that has led you to this moment, all that has come before, and they understand it. They love you for it. They know AND they love. Not they know and they judge. Or they see and they condemn.

And the truth is, that kind of "holding space" is woefully rare in life, nor is it expected to flow both ways. Most relationships in our lives are fraught with judgements about what we do/don't do and whether or not someone is living up to our ideals. But a sincere teacher doesn't limit her/his love based on a reward system. That is, when we name someone "teacher," we ask that they hold loving space for us to make our way home, no matter how mean, petty, messy, inconsolable, terrified, or ugly our path may be. In their presence, it's all about us. We get to work it out, and we get to do so because there is an inherent and necessary imbalance there. Because they can't ask that we extend to them the same courtesy, the same space, or the same compassion. Not really. We may want to, or think we are capable of that, but the truth is that we kind of need our teachers to be perfect while we work out what it is to be human. We get over that, in time, but it's a tough road for a lot of people. The ones we are so willing to make gods are the ones we must tear down. And that is a good thing. Any teacher who enjoys the pedestal ought to fall, and fall fast and hard. But our teachers also feel fear, doubt, pain, and longing. And that doesn't diminish them. We want to walk through the fires they know personally. They stumble on the very things that they can eventually point to and say, "caution!"

Through my conversations with Mark Whitwell, however, I have also learned that part of our spiritual maturation is to move to that place where the teacher is, in fact, no more and no less than a friend. These days, the teachers I work with most closely as a student are in fact that--no more and no less than friends. There is sincere friendship through which a mutual understanding arises. We call forth in one another the highest and best, and together, in the messy work of being human, we offer one another the faith that we are already divine. And somewhere in that simple teaching I find ground for my own ever-shifting being in a way that still calls me into the seat of the teacher. Some of the teachers I most adored and from/through whom I have learned, been rewired under, been initiated, and been empowered are also some I have railed and rebelled against, judged, and sought perfection from. When I look back, as I got my own sea legs, there were many mutinies in which I was all too ready to withhold my love or respect for the ones who taught me I could sail. Yet the ones who have taught me the most over time are those teachers who have met me, in each and every incarnation, chapter, or shitty pit stop, with love and that certainty that I am worthy, as is. As is. Always. All ways.

My greatest teachers are friends, not gods or judges or celebrities. My greatest teachers are human and invite me to be human, too. They walk me through my fires and make me less afraid of the flame, the burning, the ash. And my greatest teachers love generously, no matter what Life provokes in either of us. Today, like all days, I am grateful for the teachers I have had--the ones I put on pedestals, the ones who fell, the ones who inspired me, and the ones who have disappointed me. In each case, they led me to look at me, not them. They taught me to recognize that whatever they aroused was about me. And they awakened in me the courage and humility to answer when I was named "teacher," and to do so from a place that is fleshy and real. So, that is my commitment these days. Not to just pay lip service to the teachings while insisting on some perfect, untouchable role I play. If I want those who name me "teacher" to embrace their fullness--their shadows as well as their light, their fragility as well as their power--then I must be willing myself to do just that. The teachers I love best and from whom have learned to love myself better are those who show me that it is THROUGH my humanity that my divinity is revealed. Not in spite of it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

So many wounds, only one tongue

-->
Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
—T. S. Eliot

It has been a bit rough lately, and it is not just the usual weariness of another commercially saccharine Valentine’s Day. However, if I am honest with myself, I must also say it isn’t exactly unrelated. Most everyone I know is heartbroken, disappointed, or borderline cynical about intimate relationships these days. Even the people I know in seemingly fulfilling and stable relationships. I’ll get to that, but the first thread I want to pull is the fact that I have been dealing with a tenacious form of laryngitis, which has been coming and going for over two weeks. Now, trust me, I get it. I GET IT. I have already been inundated by well-meaning advice and concern offered up from the four corners of my life, and it all essentially boils down to two perspectives: see a doctor to get that checked out or explore the more symbolic/energetic message of this prolonged struggle with my voice, my truth, blah blah blah.

Those of you who know me know where this is going.

And those of you who don’t—who only know me through these words on this screen—well, you are really the point of my story today. Yeah, you, stranger.

I probably don’t need to say that I have yet to see a doctor, but it’s not because I am dismissive of the physicality of this…this plague, as I affectionately call it. By no means is the physical aspect of this situation irrelevant. In fact, I would argue that the physical, embodied, felt experience of this…whatever it is…is the only point here. Truly. On some level, I am writing about—and trying to access—the meaning of my body, or your body…and how bodies connect and commune. Sometimes beautifully, sometimes painfully discordant. But there is no language for it, really. Nothing that can convey or express exactly what it means or feels like or suggests or challenges.

How we see and experience our worlds, our lives, and definitely our relationships to others is largely defined by (and thus so often limited to) the language we use to bind it all up. If you are trained to read the world as divided up by men and women, and even more specifically into roles we play within those careful scripts, that is what you will write upon each individual you meet. You will inscribe upon the infinite possibilities of someone a very restrictive category. And you will mistake that inscription for truth, and the danger is when we assume that what we are hearing is truth. As though your readings were objective, and as though the translation was clear. As though the filters were uncomplicated. As though we all got the same script and it’s just a matter of acting it out convincingly. You be the man I am dating and I will be the woman. Action.

We collapse who we are our into the words and lose that sense that everything is everything. 
And uniquely so.

So my words can never really convey to you—exactly—what it is I am attempting to say, feel, or express. Each word directs your attention to one of many fields of possibility, and I cannot control which way you go and what that evokes in you. There is what is said. There is what is heard. And they don't always align. So our responses can seem erratic. Our reactions don't always make sense.

Nevertheless, words do serve us—through them we attempt to access and excise the mystery of it all. Words are like tools, surgical and steely. But we are instruments, not tools.

I can tell you this is writing about sound. And maybe you read this as a rambling about love. Meaning cannot be contained. Or, if it is, it’s in everything.

As William Blake wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

Which is why I find myself basking in the morning winter sunlight, sipping hot things, listening to sharp-angled, throbbing, loud music, and writing about the ways in which language fails. And music works.

And it will take me a long time to say something meaningful, though the words may spiral around in pretty (or awkward) sounds and images. Because they only ever point toward what I mean, deferring and deflecting meaning, like sign posts or web links: click here for more. And off we go, wandering in the labyrinth of all the words that suggest and invoke and evoke, one leading to another, never landing, never arriving.

I recently returned to an archived On Being.org interview called "Language and Meaning: An Ojibwe Story." Krista Tippett spoke with David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer and translator who has been compiling the first practical grammar of the Ojibwe language—a language, like so many indigenous languages—that faces extinction, obsoletion. One thing Treuer shares is his discovery that language is so much more than mere currency of meaning. His mother tongue allows for a distinct awareness and understanding of himself and the world that is not accessed through another language, like English. Repeat: awareness and self understanding is not always accessible through the language we wrap around it.

This tells us something very important about the words we use to express ourselves—they are not just labels slapped onto things we can all see and agree upon. In worlds both internal and external, there is infinite possibility for meaning, connection, and understanding. And these worldviews—entire systems of who and what and why we are—are not universal or generalizable.

Let’s repeat that one again, too: how one person sees and organizes the world is not the only way. There are infinite silent voices for every one given the power of Truth. And I don’t just mean to chafe at another example of cultural imperialism. I am just as surely digging around for the inner silence in each of us—the places and spaces within that haven’t yet found expression. Because the language fails. Because it can’t accommodate the experience. Some aspects of Treuer’s identity can only be expressed in Ojibwe. I get that—don’t you? I understand that there are concepts and perspectives only made available within certain discursive contexts. Language is not a reflection of what is out there. Language creates what we see and experience out there.

It’s probably worth noting, then, that space and sound are intricately and irrevocably bound. If you want to understand space, in other words, you should make a study of sound…the way it moves and undulates and fans out. And if you want to understand sound, you immerse yourself in space. Sound needs space, body. An instrument, we could say. And sometimes the only way to find space in oneself and ones experience is through a new language, a new song.

It is no epiphany to say that music so often conveys something for us—beyond the lyrics, even. We know that the melodies and the rhythms and feel of a song can express something shared, something we know is more than the words. But music doesn’t merely say for us what we can’t or won’t say…music holds the space for us to feel what we need to feel, uncensored, and to embody something that might in fact go against the confines of our language. Music allows vibrations to carry you, to give you shape from the inside out and the outside in, until a loose harmony is struck.

In the nerdy academic world in which I was first introduced to this perspective that language does more than communicate ideas, we explored the difference between constitutive and mimetic. Most of us believe that our words directly reflect and describe a solid reality—the fixed and objective world we can observe. By extension, we believe that if we just find the “right words,” we can capture that truth so that others will see it too.  And so, we (mostly unconsciously) employ language and assume we are clearly, directly, and precisely conveying to another exactly what it is we are feeling, thinking, observing, or experiencing. In other words, we think and thus act as though language merely reflects something true and real, and thus the task is to become more adept at using the tools.

But a constitutive understanding of language recognizes that words, and the discourses that evolve from them, do not reflect reality, but rather create it. Words aren’t accurate and equal currencies; they can limit and reduce. They organize the world in its complex and interconnected relationships into manageable categories around which we can wrap our minds and land, if only for a moment. This is why an Ojibwe requires his mother tongue to express certain understandings and experiences. The words create a world, and that world is not available in all tongues. Not all tongues speak of the same world, even when the word is the same.

From a cultural perspective, I think we get it. I think we can grasp the fact that an Inuit really does see hundreds of types of snow, because they have a language that allows for wintery nuances ours cannot. Or maybe we are comfortable acknowledging the seemingly “foreign languages” of women to men and vice versa. The words might even be the same, but what they mean to each individual has less to do with something innate than it does with something they create. Feel. Embody.

And how we respond to creation—like what is created in me when someone says, “I love you” is a world all my own.

Yet it’s also, in part, a world that has been conditioned and reinforced through our shortcut use of the words. So I hear or read a word like “love” and the spiders of my mind and past instantly begin to weave a complex web that I think of as REALITY. But the utterance from the other person may have been woven according to an entirely different intention than the design I am now caught within. The more we struggle, the more we wrestle to reconcile what we have created with the intended creation of another in a word like “love,” the more stuck we get in the silky, sticky threads of language.

I guess laryngitis kind of draws my attention to the usefulness of words, or more specifically of speaking to people through them. Because it matters that “express” means both to give voice to AND to extract and force out. Slapping a word on something is neither, and yet I wonder if what I am after is a kind of surgical precision that can help me both articulate and excise this ache of collapse and the stripped down and whisper thin reedy fragile feeling of “heartbreak.” 

We are all looking for the right words, the right tongue, to express something and therefore heal it.

So many wounds, only one tongue.

In spite of my academic training, I am also a student and teacher of yoga, and so I have another model to consider. The chakras, the energetic centers of consciousness—what we are aware of, and thus from what state we act and experience ourselves/others in the world. The yogi nerds in my life, upon hearing I am struggling with my voice and chest are immediately up in my esoteric business (always so lovingly, always so genuinely) pressing me to explore what Truth I am holding in, or asking what in my heart is not being expressed, or how I am resisting my own Voice or how it relates to my dislike of being on the phone….you know, very yogic sounding things. And, again, all very relevant. This is not news to me, I tell them. Vishuddha chakra, the throat center, is the center of communication. It’s also the next step from the heart, where transmission and reception can get stopped up. Communication here is not just what or how we say what we want to say. It’s also about what we take in/receive (the messages we internalize or hear), and all the things we don’t hear, say, or let reverberate deep in each cell. Vishuddha chakra is also related, as each chakra is, to certain relationships and essential understandings. Throat chakra? Your relationship to yourself as divine, whole, and holy.

Because that is the only Truth, as far as yoga is concerned. The rest is ego, and we choke on that a lot.

Of course, when we are least conscious, words act as a shorthand for thinking (or not thinking, as it were) and simply reconfirm, reproduce, and contain. Collapse.

Collapse

If you have ever spent time in another country, where you didn’t speak a lick of the language, you know that there are some things that get communicated without words. Sometimes we make meaning together in spite of—or more likely, because of—the chasm where language fails. Those moments are the intimate transactions where, as bodies of sound, we entrain in something far more intimate than the words we might have spoken had it been easier. There is a space, in other words, where we find fluency in one another and it need not be pinpointed to a single action, a single utterance. A single tongue.

Physicists and yogis share perspectives on a surprising array of things, including vibration. That is, the essence of all matter is vibrating energy. Sound. Music, if you will. We are, at our most basic level, made of sound. Even our atoms and cells, our skin and tongues. Reverberating, resonating, pulsating. Where we insist there is concrete form, the physicists and yogis shake their heads and cluck their tongues and remind us, it is all energy, spinning and vibrating. For the practitioner of hatha yoga, the ultimate goal is to hear the nadam, the everpresent vibration of life itself. The universal hum, from which all things arise and back to which they all return. The song within all things, at all times.

This sound, this vibration, this thing emanating within and around us is what connects us more than any touch, taste, or word. It’s a song that holds it all together.

This is key. The matter, the essential matter, with me as with you, is vibration. The vibration of a thought is no less important or real than the vibration of a body. In fact, we might say that the body—the forms we see and feel, that eat and breathe and have sex and hold and take and sleep and die—are just the apex of the song that began with a single note. So when you are muted—either internally or externally, by fear, heartbreak, grief, self doubt, or shyness, or laryngitis or too much screaming or not enough speaking—the effect is the same. Think of it like this: you are an antennae, receiving and transmitting all the time.

The question arises, then, are we in fact listening? Or are we always superimposing onto the so-called silence?


The heart, we know, is an organ. An organ. An instrument. And all instruments require an outside force to bring forth their song. Yet in yoga, the heart center is anāhata chakra: the un-struck instrument. It suggests that the heart plays with or without an outside force—the love of another, the attention of another, the touch of another. The issue isn’t whether or not the heart has something to express. The issue is whether or not we can hear it over the din of all we are saying.

You know, like “heartbreak.” We say something like, “my heart is broken” and it creates this experience that may or may not be the real truth of it. The raw and ripped open experience of it. For us. It serves as a shortcut I can use so you can meet me somewhere in there, nod your head and say “I know how you feel.” But the problem with the shortcut is it disallows, hems in, and restricts. It mutes. If I tell you that I am heartbroken, I am being honest. But I am also withholding and tiptoeing around the silent space of it all. The shadowy place where the experience (the feeling, emotion, pulsation) is so much more than the label, and so it requires something other than the label to bring it forth.

Sometimes the only way I can really access and feel what I am, well feeling is to break out of words (she writes, nodding her head with you about the irony here). To quickly change course and run in a new direction, into the thickets of my body’s own language (wild and untamable) before discourse, like a neurotic and overprotective nanny, bundles it all up in a safe and totally suffocating embrace. A label. A word. An expression. Some experiences require a new contour, a new melody. They need to move through the body in a new way, or the new song will re-work the space for a new perspective. And this is what is so awesome and painful about playing the right music at the right time. We can lick the wounds with more than that one tongue.

This is also why this same cold dull February day I go running. Against the oppressive and well-meaning advice to stay warm and stay in and sit and drink things and just be. But today I know that what my silent screaming place needs is space. A new shape to move the sound, to find the voice, to find a way into expression. It isn’t that I am not speaking my truth or holding back or holding things in. It’s that I haven’t yet found the right language, the right tongue to give shape to something inside, much less lick it. And I don’t want to rush that. I don’t want to mistake the quiet for being dumb and without voice. I don’t want to assume that the pre-made phrases and sound bytes are enough. I don’t want to cheapen the depth and richness and singularly meaningful feeling of what I have to say by forcing it into something lifeless like “heartbreak.” You see, I don’t mind the silence. It isn’t punitive. I think the silence is my way of insisting I find something new to say. To myself. Gods know I need a new song to make sense of this space.

In the brittle cold, on a frozen dirt trail, I zip up my layers and cover my face (my eyelashes are already forming spiky little eyecicles). I can’t speak out loud, but I can listen. I can see the shape of my breath and know there is something big and loud brewing in my every garrulous cell. And as I start to make way down the icy trail, I realize all the trees around me are so still that the forest itself is a dense and woolly concert hall. Beneath the rhythm of my breath, I swear I hear the sap moving. Still, I want my body to be the amphitheater, the concert hall, the echo chamber. And though I am sad (shorthand for a feeling like bloodletting and rage and humiliation and a giddy freedom that doesn’t fit “heartbreak”), it’s not sad music my bones crave. It’s raucous and loud and hypermasculine and raging. It isn’t making me feel something or echoing a thought. The music is vibrating through my entire instrument and it is giving me the space to feel what I am feeling. It is carving out a new shape in me, and in that shape, sound arises from the silence. And my body is running full throttle on a frigid day, and I am sweating and my breath is forming tenuous clouds, like comic book balloon texts that ferry all I am saying—from deep within—into expression. And then into resolution.

Most of the time, we don't have words to corral what we feel or think into a useful shape. It's all so imprecise and fleeting--words on a page or words on the uttered breath do not hold meaning or convey it precisely. They stain the infinite space of all that is unsaid, leeching from all that possibility one ill-formed utterance that transmits a mere fragment of what you feel. When what you feel is so much bigger. Unruly. Vibrant. Unique to the hum of the organ within. And the wrong words, well, the wrong words are a labyrinth in which we too often lose ourselves trying to translate what was meant. John O'Donohue said, "music is what language would love to be if it could," and when I consider all physical matter is made of vibration-that we are music at our very essence--it seems wise to remember we are instruments so much more than we are tools...

Sometimes what we think of as a failure of relationship is really an inability to resolve foreign tongues and find fluency together in something new. Something not yet penned or spoken or sung. All I know is that an imposed silence has asked I be a better listener, and what I have heard has changed the very fabric of who I am and what I transmit, transmute, and receive.

Is this the resolution then? Have I said anything at all? Perhaps not. But I have made room for and given shape to something that was silenced when I would try to talk about it. And it isn’t up to me to translate for you whatever worlds these words evoked. When we think of “resolution,” we tend to think of something coming to an ending. Closure. Something final. But in musical terms, a resolution suggests the progression from dissonance to a consonance…the note or the chord toward which it’s all moving. Resolution brings all the seemingly contradictory threads together into a place, a space, a sound where each can hum and together, where two tongues come together, and hold the world together.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Goldfish and Rabbits

 "This is freedom: not a freedom to judge which comes from knowing who we are,
but a liberation from our finite self-images, an opening to life."
Claire Colebrook

Among many many strange habits I had as a child, I would often egg myself on to run faster by imagining something epic depended on my speed. "Imagine we are being chased by a huge, bloody skeleton!" I would call out to my best friend when we would race across the lawn. Twisted, perhaps, but that spooky specter motivated us to go a little bit faster, a little bit harder. Laughing, but running. I was a soccer player, and incentive came in handy. There were times I imagined my mother's life depending on my running, or the plight of the mountain gorilla ("imagine that you could save all the gorillas if you can get to that fence post in 5 seconds"). I ran for the lottery, a cure for cancer, and to end a few wars. But mostly I ran--fast--when something I feared was nipping at my heels.

Fear is like that, is it not? It makes us run. Fast. 
Faster.
But, sometimes it paralyzes us and we just freeze, holding our breath in hopes the danger will pass. 

There is an enormous jackrabbit who lives in the woods nearby, and every time I see him, I am struck by two things: how he magically blasts out of an invisible hiding place once I get too close, and how damn fast he moves once he starts. In the life of this rabbit, I am, potentially, a really large coyote. Or a featherless, walking hawk. Either way, when he senses that I am too close to his burrow and he might be found out, he does what he and all of us are programmed to do--he runs like hell.

We are clear where this is headed, right? I mean, sure I still strap on my running shoes and head out 3-5 times each week and let loose...but now it's more likely Siouxsie and the Banshees that motivates me to pick up the pace than any imaginary bloody banshee. So I'm not talking about running on a trail anymore, really. 

I'm thinking about fear and what it is I most fear and why. 
And these are weighty considerations for a warm Friday in January. It would be so much easier to instead, just....well, do anything, I guess. Anything other than look, listen, or acknowledge my fears. I guess that is the point I am circling. The point, like the scared rabbit, huddles, hides, and prepares to bolt at the first distraction or relief. It doesn't want to be found out. 

There is a great Ani DiFranco lyric that I think offers a good entry into the burrow: "They say that goldfish have no memories, I guess their lives are much like mine. And the little plastic castle is a surprise every time." Ah, the mighty goldfish. Whether or not this is true, they have something profound to teach us: when we meet each moment, each situation, and each person in our lives as though for the first time, we remain open to infinite possibilities. But when we think/act like we have someone or something all wrapped up and defined, we limit ourselves as much as anything. If we have a bad experience around the plastic  castle, then we are more likely to project that feeling onto the castle every damn time we swim past it. To be awed by what IS instead of being reactive to what you think it was/will be/should be/could demands our presence. This is what the goldfish has to teach us: if you want to be present to the little plastic castles in your life, you have to let go of the fear and hurt of the plastic castles of your past.

Fear is one of the primary reasons we bolt from our present reality--that is, what IS--because our fear is always already about the past or the future. We don't want to feel or experience something unpleasant again, so we develop hypervigilant defenses around each moment, each breath, each heartbeat. "Never again," we say, wary of the plastic castle in the murky water before us. Leery of anything like a plastic castle.

So, fear is as much about memory as anything.
  
Memory. To remember. The word, like the process, is complicated. We so often think of remembering as calling back to mind, thinking about someone or something. Yet the word is to re-member, and it is here that I find myself settling into it. Member suggests part of a whole, and suggests flesh—the body.  Remembering is a sensual, fleshly, physical process though we often think of it as merely cerebral, the flickering of the past images across the synapses of the brain. But as quantum healing (think Candace Pert/Molecules of Emotion here) has demonstrated time and again, the thoughts themselves not only trigger a cascade of physiological responses—they are themselves physical. 

I often tell my students that yoga is about remembering oneself as already whole and perfect--without the need to attain, obtain, or overcome anything. This is the true Self. The oneness of being. Yoga. To re-member is to bring back to mind, yes, but more importantly we bring back into the body the essential truth, the memory, the form...to remember then is simultaneously a physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual process. In asana practice, we approximate form after form, moving through formlessness with awareness of and attention to what stories, memories, habits, and beliefs are stored there. Beliefs around which we shape our perceptions and thus our actions. We do all this to cultivate some consciousness around the knee-jerk reactions that might otherwise dictate how we participate in this world. So we can traverse, more gracefully, what IS, and not get so tripped up on what was once or what we assume/expect it to be in the future.

In those approximations, as we take the form of so many "others" and invite in the experiences of such scary-as-hell things as open hearts, exposed throats, and standing on our own without a plan B...we allow ourselves to remember. We bring back into the body and breath and awareness the experience that we may otherwise resist, deny, or avoid.  And in so doing, we allow whatever memories--old stories, old feelings, old beliefs--to arise. In other words, we bridge something more than time and space and preference and prejudice and difference; we bridge otherness altogether. We dissolve separateness, smallness, and finality. No small wonder, then, that a moment of commemoration and memory feels like transformation in one's very cells, in the very breath.

We do all this so we can actually see the little plastic castle in its presence.
Or the co-worker, or the new lover, or the old lover. 
We do all this so we can stop projecting onto others and ourselves the limitations that come from hunkering down in a hole you think keeps you safe from what you most fear.

Feeling fear is not bad--feeling fear is the message that there is something to see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch. But we pull away or push away that opportunity in favor of reinforcing the posture we build around the fear.

So we withhold love, affection, or sincerity. We become more rigid and dogmatic. We seek control by dictating what should be, and exile anything and anyone who disobeys our rule. We contrive all manner of behaviors to manipulate or seduce a situation so it matches our beliefs. And when all else fails, we run, hide, or fight. 

When you remember--actively remember--having your heart broken or being betrayed or being rejected, or you remember scarcity or pain or grief or abandonment, there is a physicality to your memory. It triggers your instinct to run or hide. Or fight.

For most of us, this becomes a posture-a shape/perspective we take that is at once physical, emotional, intellectual, and energetic. And over time, with lots and lots of practice, we become so adept at that posture that we mistake it for who we are. It becomes the stance from which we act and interact with the world around us. So we become runners--always busy, distracted, and otherwise engaged so as not to face the fear. Or we become hiders, afraid of being seen, obsessed with being small, terrified of being heard, and just waiting for the threat to pass so we can slip under the shadows unnoticed. Or we become fighters, convinced the every action of others is somehow undermining our own safety, integrity, value.  Fighters don't believe they are enough, so they don't believe they have enough. They fight over territory, validation, and dogma. They want to be right rather than free.

In each case, we are reactive to the true, underlying fear. And reactive is the antithesis of creative. In a reactive state, we just do what we have always done--fight, flee, or hide.

We run from something or someone--through distractions, busyness, imposed distance, control, drugs, or dogma. Whether tyrannically controlling others/situations or numbing out, we run. Or we hide. Paralyzed, trapped in the burrow of a moment, a feeling, an experience around which we build elaborate and complex identities that we insist are "Just who I am." 

"Deal with it," we say to the world, "This is the way I am," digging our claws a few centimeters deeper into the dirt. Into the hole.

That burrow, that identity, that posture, that old story--it can FEEL like a safe place to hide and wait it out. It can FEEL like you are right, or you are protected, or you are validated (since no one can really fit into that hole with you). But we mistake our prison for a home, and the invitation of that raised heartbeat and the feeling that something is tracking you is this: take a deep breath, get out of the hole, and look it in the eyes.

What are we most afraid of? And do we have the courage to ask how we keep insisting on the same damn experiences by projecting those fears onto the little plastic castles right before us? 

My mother taught me a long time ago that if something is "always" happening to me, or I am "always" experiencing something, the common denominator is, well, me. I watch myself and others in patterns of reactivity--doing the same things over and over, not realizing they are creating the very reality they fear. If you are convinced the little plastic castle is going to hurt you, and you react as though that is the only possible scenario, you will find a way to be hurt...and that will validate all your past hurts, all your self righteousness, and all your attempts to lock down and control (yourself as well as others) all future hurts. 

The balance to the "fight or flight" syndrome is the parasympathetic nervous response we refer to as "rest and digest." In other words, the way to bring equanimity back to the scared being is to find a way to actually digest what is happening. And to do that, we have to be willing to rest in it--to allow for it. To sit with it. Pain, depression, guilt, anger, whatever the reactive emotion is, it's giving us an opportunity to digest what is ACTUALLY happening. See the person before you as they actually are, listen to the words they are actually saying, and instead of projecting onto them their own past or the ghosts of those who came before, let them be free. So you can be free.

What is the worst thing that could happen by facing fear and looking it in the eye? One of my most influential mentors taught me to follow up each response with, "So what???" It's a profound way to access the real fear, which is more often than not, the fear of change. Because what happens when your safe little burrow that gave shape and form to all your beliefs will no longer hold you? You feel exposed. So what? You feel vulnerable? So what? You might get hurt? So what? If you get hurt you feel sad? So what? 

So many fears and fears of fears become layers that may at one time offer protection, but can just as easily bury you. And bury the possibilities this life is offering you, moment by moment, breath by breath.
Perhaps our task in all this is to find space out of the hole but not yet running in a panic, so we might actually look at the fear that is tracking us and making prey of this life. Maybe in our reactive state we can cultivate curiosity and compassion instead, genuinely interested in what we are feeling and how it might be a re-run of a past experience. How might we respond differently, if we knew we are safe and whole and no matter what we experience, we have a choice about the stories we choose to re-live over and over.

What are you afraid of?
So what?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sex (yes, sex)

When I was in graduate school, I had the great fortune of taking a science writing course with a professor of immunology who was also a beautiful writer and poet. I learned from Gerald Callahan that the memory of the immune system--that is, the part of us that is entirely devoted to discerning, moment by moment, what is Self and what is Not Self--is more comprehensive and eternal than cognitive memory. In other words, though I may forget names, dates, and events of my life, my immune system will remember everything.

That may not strike one as something particularly fascinating at first read. But consider this: every cell in the body contains not only the memories of all those who have shared  our lives, but physical evidence of them as well. That is, if you have shared a cold with someone, you carry inside of you--forever--part of them, imprinted inside your glassy cells. Like ghosts, they continue to haunt us even long past their exits from our lives or their own.

When this system goes awry, the body will begin to attack itself as though it were the enemy. Who are we, and how do the intimate relationships in our lives expand or contract that sense of Self?

I think of this beautiful work of the immune system every time I miss my father, dead now over 7 years. We experience this haunting as a feeling--a yearning, a longing, a hunger. As though every cell is suddenly seeking the next chapter to a story that cannot be completed. It dangles, unbound. Incomplete. But here is another perspective--a vibrant, sensuous, equally confounding truth. Every lover you have ever been with is also a part of you, and this is something the yogis (and many great masters of many traditions) have known for thousands of years.

A few weeks ago, a beloved student of mine lamented a recent breakup with a man with whom she had shared an intense but brief relationship. As I listened to her regrets, confusion, frustration, and hurt, I heard echos of all my friends who have grappled with the tricky terrain of intimacy, sex, identity, and integrity. How do you open yourself fully and completely to another without losing balance? "I just wish I had never slept with him," this beautiful woman groaned. "I think I should just be celibate...things would be so much easier." "Why?" I asked, "What exactly do you think sex can or cannot do?" She shook her head and laughed, "Well the problem is now that he is all I think about."

My friend felt haunted.

According to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, suffering arises from attachment and aversion. That is, we experience suffering when we hanker excessively for things that give us pleasure or when we push away the things we fear will cause us pain. And most of us expend the majority of our time and energy striving to accumulate more of what we want and less of what we don't want. So long as we get the good stuff and keep the bad stuff at bay, we enjoy a tenuous peace...but we never rest, and we are rendered vulnerable to the slightest shift in the balance. So, we yoga teachers talk a lot about "letting go of attachment" and "sitting with discomfort." It sounds simple enough, but apply it to your actual lived life--the stuff of bedrooms, board rooms, and highways, and it gets a little more complicated.

Yoga, in its most essential teaching, is the experience of union--the realization of the oneness of being. Most of us experience ourselves as separate, skin-bound entities and egos whose lives are made up of mini victories and losses. But according to this tradition, what we really want is to feel whole and part of a whole. Instead, we mostly wander around feeling like holes in search of something to fill us up. For some it is shopping, for others it is control. Some fill up with money and things, while others stuff themselves with the attention/affection of another. Be it food, drugs, technology, power, or self righteousness, what we binge on to feel whole is what keeps us behaving like holes. The true happiness and freedom we seek, according to the yogic scriptures, comes from the merging. Remembering. Re-membering. Bringing back into the body the memory of who you really are. Whole. Not dis-membered, fragmented, and empty. But whole, complete, and full. And to remember also suggests to once again find membership. To be a member.

Of course, it is worth noting that a more antiquated English referred to sexual relationships as "knowing" one another. Though we tend to joke about this as "knowing" another physically, the real sense of the expression runs much deeper. After all, to be fully known--seen, recognized, heard, held, and embraced--is the true power of sex. We don't just want to be adored, we want to be remembered. And when, in the embrace of another, we are ourselves reminded, there is magic. But when the embrace is hollow and you are left feeling entirely forgotten or unseen, there is despair.

What my sad student was feeling was the brokenness and fragmentation that follows in the wake of a breakup or a loss. She felt rejected because this man was no longer communicating with her. The affection and attention she had felt so filled by were now memories. Ghosts. Like the sun that once warmed and nurtured her had gone black.

In sex, ideally, two individuals share for a moment--however brief or dramatic--a complete dissolution of separateness that goes beyond the physical, whether or not we are cognizant of that power. For a moment, there is a complete merging with something beyond each individuals singularity. Perhaps this is why the ethical tenet of brahmacharya is such a charged one for yogis. Translated by some as self imposed celibacy, this yama inevitably creates a lot of questions about whether we are seeking to live as part of this world or apart from this world. When Patanjali lists the yamas, he also describes what a practitioner who is firmly established in them can expect. And in the case of brahmacharya, we are told that we will enjoy true health and vitality. Vigor. This is no surprise, as many spiritual traditions do in fact encourage celibacy as a way of harnessing the energy one may need for the rigors of spiritual practice.

But I am not sure about that, as I look around at all the universe, teeming with life that is creative, revolutionary, dynamic, fluid, and sensuous. So, I tend to sit more with the translations given to me by some of my most influential teachers. Brahmacharya is more literally understood as "the way to Brahman," which is like saying "the way to God." Or Source. Or The Divine. Or The One. Or.....

The point is, we enjoy vitality when we don't waste our energy on pursuits that have nothing to do with leading us toward yoga--union, remembering who we are. And an awful lot of people waste their powerful sexual energy in relationships that make them feel even more alone, even more separate, even more incomplete. If acharya is like a chariot--like a car, a vehicle, a way, a means--then it matters which one you choose. There is a part of you that is forever reminding you who you really are, and each time you share that kind of intimacy with another, you braid them into your physiological, emotional, and energetic fabric. Every cell knows every lover you have ever embraced. And, as my dear sad friend felt, those cells orient toward that lover like sunflowers to the sun. So devastating can it be then when that sun goes out and every cell continues to wait longingly. Because each cell knows that lover to have been a part of you at some moment, however briefly, together you made your way to Brahman. To Yoga. Union. Oneness.

It is said that what we seek is the seeker...that all the practices, techniques, disciplines, and austerities are essentially ways (means, methods) to remind us of who we have always been. Our goal then is to remember. And there is no more powerful memory than that of the system whose entire raison d'etre is to sort through what is Self and what is not. So I suspect that sex, as a method, a means, a technique, a technology, is one of the most powerful ways to reach Brahman because it circumvents the careful policing we all do every day to keep ourselves separate. But it's a powerful method, and one that can just as likely steer one more deeply into isolation, disconnection, and fragmentation if you, well, choose the wrong acharya.

In the sexual afterglow (or aftermath, depending on your situation), we have the opportunity to stay connected--against all our cultural training and insecurity and need for control. To my beautiful student whose heart is aching and hungry, I offer this humble reflection that you are already whole, unfurling cell by cell into this universe as you slowly discern all you are and all you are not. That you ache for someone whose light once fed you is neither an indication that he is the sun upon whom you now depend for happiness nor is he the blight that wiped out your vitality. Like every lover we know in this lifetime, he is helping you remember something...and it isn't about pleasure or pain.

Who you are--becoming and unbecoming--is an eternal work in progress, shaped, in part, again and again by those whose lives are forever grafted to your own. When the path leads you toward the darkness of being alone, isolated, or forgotten, remember that there is a true and potent exchange of energy that occurs when you merge with another that you are recalibrating moment by moment. So, yes, choose the acharya wisely, but don't confuse the method for the goal. You are already whole--now go out there and merge with those who know it, too.