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Disappearing acts

We have been living together for over 13 years, the human animal and the two balls of fur and tenderness. I would like to say we were there for each other but realize it might be a romanicized picture my mind constructs now. We were there with each other, that’s for sure. Maybe sometimes that is enough.


The older one was somewhat neurotic, jumpy and insecure.  I could never say what she had on her mind and often had a feeling she could see me for who I truly was. Looking into her eyes for a while was often like staring into the sky, provoking the effect of vertigo. She never demanded attention, but asked for it ever so gently. Truth be told in the past year or so she very seldom received it from me. Not surprising, I didn’t notice when she started the fading away business. I was not paying attention, busy getting all the things done. The younger – very verbal, outgoing and totally incapable of being moody or angry – used to miew her way into a hug.

 
It ended within a week. Worse things happen, I suppose. Every day somewhere in the world people die, hearts get broken. We had to move on. Only something doesn’t work. It is not just that we became one loving being short in the household, it is that one other being doesn’t seem to know how to exist in this world without her companion. Lisa, so quiet you hardly knew she was there, had a function in our triad, of which I was totally unaware. Her disappearing act shifted the invisible balance. The younger one I knew seems to have disappeared with the death of her companion and in the rear moments of silence at home, I catch myself thinking, “This is not the one I loved”.

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This week one of the members of the online community I am a member of suggested the following questions for reflection, based on Mind Training in Seven Points by Ken McLeod:

Can you be a child of illusion?, can you see the magic in the world around you even in the most difficult times?

If you can, then how does it make you feel? If you cannot then why not? What is stopping you?

Where do I even start? 🙂  Although I would very much like to return to the magic world of the childhood, it does not strike me as a particularly informed one. Children are this way because they cannot be any other way (and how wonderful is that!) It reminds me of a judgement that can often be heard about the works of artists who choose to express their vision in a more abstract way, “But even a child could make a picture like that!” Exactly! Only this is the only way a child can make pictures, which is not the case with artists. Kids have to go through those pains of development, with the support of the parents and the tribe (some don’t go far but that is a different issue). They have to discover the world is not rotating around them (moving from the egocentric perspective to a wider, etnocentric and then to worldcentric), that parents are not perfect and that in life we inevitably encounter loss and suffering. At the same time they are being socialized and conditioned by the people they are very dependable on. This is a lot to take in! Honestly, I don’t envy children.

So when I take up questions like the ones outlined above, I have to remind myself to not idealize something and keep in mind the intention. The intention behind my practice is not to forget all the things I know about life of which loss and death are a part of, but to be aware of choices in life and make informed decisions. With this in mind, I move into exploring what it is that keeps me from experiencing the world through the eyes of a child. I supposed this is what in Zen traditions is called Zen mind. The qualities I associate with this state is gentle curiosity, openness and playfulness. Openness to whatever arises, good or bad.

What is this mystery of life we are talking about here?

“Perhaps the mystery makes itself felt as a moment of timeless presence, of being so completely here that you wonder where you’ve been all your life. The moment passes however, and a wall goes back up. You realize that you live behind that wall… You live with the isolation, but deep inside you wonder, “What is this wall?”

– Ken McLeod, “Wake up to your life”, p. 4.

What stops you from experiencing the mystery of life? What is this wall Ken writes about? When is it more likely to come up?

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As I turned 40 on Friday, the questions I was asking myself  were  “Have I loved enough? Have  I given enough? Have I dared enough?”.  (The enough here is not meant as some kind of measurement constructed to compare myself with some ideal or others and bring competitiveness into the picture but rather as a reference to the potential). Not surprisingly, I came to the conclusion that I was able and willing to give, love and dare more.

Loving

It’s been quite an adventure loving others but I had to admit to myself that I had yet a lot to learn about giving myself to love wholeheartedly. The love I was offering to my partners and close friends often have been tinted with the desire for them to be a certain way or do specific things, if only for a few minutes. While this was something I honestly believed in earlier, it was a shock for me to realise this has not been how I have been living the loving.

In “Everyday Zen” Joko Beck makes a radical statement: relationships don’t work. In fact, it is the very fact that we want something to work that makes relationships unsatisfactory. “We all want something from the people we are in relationship to. None of us can say that we don’t want something from those we are in relationship to. And even if we avoid relationships that’s another way of wanting something. So relationships just don’t work.”

The only thing that works, according to her, “(if we really practice) is a desire not to have something for myself but to support all life, including individual relationships.” When someone loves/supports someone, there is no book-keeping going on when we try to balance the sheet: I gave this much and now I want something back (be it about preparing meals, doing the dishes or giving emotional support and time). So what does it mean to love/support others on the moment-to-moment basis, choosing love again and again? Loving the person because I want to be with them and not because I want them to be someone else or do something else.

Joko Beck: “To truly support somebody means that you give them everything and expect nothing. You might give them your time, your work, your money, anything. “You need it. I’ll give it to you”. Love expects nothing.”

Quite a different perspective on love from the one we often see in films, books and definately not the one shared by the cultures I have been living in, which are driven by the concern that we cannot get enough of something. We cannot get enough of good food, trendy clothes and gadgets, wise books, cool hobbies, time. Love. We actually start believing someone actually can give us love while love can only exist within ourselves, this is something we feel.

For the moment it might seem like I am doubting my own feelings, often returning to the question,  “Do I love him/her or do I want them to be someone else?” but this is the only way I know that can wake me up from the confusion. If I am not getting enough love, can it be that I am not feeling enough love, not choosing love but instead balancing the sheets too much?

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One of the big names in psychology Philip G. Zimbaro was a guest on Skavlan, the popular talk show in Sweden. He talked about the Stanford Prison Experiment he was running in 1971 and what it revealed about the situations in which “good people are placed in bad circumstances. ” I had learnt about the famous prison simulation a few years ago from the German film “Das Experiment” (2001).  (It was not exactly something one learnt about growing up in the Soviet, the whole country being basically a prison cell.)

The experiment scheduled for two weeks was interrupted after six days as the situation started spiraling out of control. Watching the film today it is hard not to draw parallels with the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib by the American soldiers.

What astonished me in Dr Zimbaro’s account was that he acknowledged how in the matter of six days he totally identified with his role of the superintendent of the prison, stopped seeing the people and saw only “prisoners”, how the only thing he cared about was that the “guards” followed their routines, although he saw the escalation of the abuse by the “guards”. Could that be?

The site dedicated to the experiment takes us on a tour around it, “uncovering what it tells us about the human nature.”  I catch myself lingering over the Begin the Slide Show button. What am I about to see the proof of? That in difficult circumstances we forget about being human? (The roles of the prisoners and guards in the original experiment were assigned by chance, nobody actually wanted to be a “guard” from the beginning).

Another experiment comes to mind:  two groups of volunteers (novice meditators and what I would call mega meditators – those who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditators, like Matthieu Ricard) submitted their brains for scrutiny by neuroscientists when practicing compassion meditation towards all beings.  The difference between the two groups was striking, the monks showing a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves that are said to underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.”

So if we practice meditation for hours and hours, we can actually change the structure of the brain and become more compassionate? That if anything is a good reason enough to introduce meditation in schools and working places, right?

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Fortunate to have a few days off at Christmas time, not charged with any social obligations, I took long walks in the snowy forest, watched BBC TV-series after Jane Austen’s masterpieces, did research for work from the comforting depth of my arm-chair, met with the few friends staying in town for holidays. Was reconnecting to my inner tortoise, one could say. Like Austen’s Emma, I had time to explore the workings of my own heart/mind.  Unlike Emma, I had my yoga practice to turn to for wise guidance on the begun journey into the love-light country. In romantic relationships, as in yoga, we have a chance to meet all sides of ourselves, the ugly and the beautiful, the stuff that makes us shine and that which holds us back.

Here come a couple of my favourite lessons off the yoga mat (but then again all life is one if we do not try to compartmentalize it, right?)

Am I ready?

One of the most profound lessons that yoga has been teaching me about myself and life is that at every moment it can become more than a stretch just as falling for another always has a potential to be a much larger journey than the initial experience of falling in love.  Both can be truly transforming experiences. And as I’ve discovered, transformation is simply not possible without resistance and the underlying fear of change.

As I watch the yoga teacher suspending herself in the air in a beautiful arm-balance, my heart jumps with excitement and I feel the subtle shifting in my own muscles. The next second I catch the Controller in me go, “No-no-no, you could not possibly pull this one off without injuring yourself or destroying the apartment. You certainly should not consider venturing into it without a thorough preparation.”

What I forget is that every pose I ever tried have been preparing me for this next balance. Now whenever I think the pose is too much for me, I remind myself that I don’t need to do it in its entirety right away but can break it down into components to gently and patiently explore each of them. Likewise, in relationships, whenever something feels overwhelming, my beloved and I can break down the larger issue into smaller parts and see what each of them asks from us, one at a time. Suddenly I feel how my own tension subsides, see the face of my beloved relaxing, the first glimpse of smile showing in his eyes.

Throwing oneself into the fire

One of the first things we discover in yoga is the disproportionate restrictions in our body, those tight spots. So the physical aspect of yoga is about cultivating openness in those restricted areas by constantly playing the edge. In his wonderful book on yoga Erich Schiffmann defines playing the edge as “sensing where your edges are and learning to hold the body there with awareness, moving with its often subtle shifts.  Your skill in yoga has little to do with your degree of flexibility or where your edges happen to be. Rather, it is a function of how sensitively you play your edges, no matter where they are.”* I am reminded that there are no such thing as the ideal posture (or perfect relationship for that matter!) but rather each posture is ever-evolving, changing from moment to moment. Sensitivity for me is in the first place about listening for both the words and beyond the words, the ability to drop the agenda (this is how I am going to do this pose or what I am going to say) when I am listening to my own body or to what my beloved says. Even in relationships we can practice listening with the body, as we do in yoga. We can colibrate ourselves to become more sensitive and receive the waves we otherwise might miss.

 

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During Maracatu rehearsal the other night something interesting happened. In a matter of an hour two alfaias (rope-tuned bass drums of varying sizes playing a mixture of complimenting, powerful rhythms) got cracks. Our wonderful group leader was shaken and asked us to play a song that celebrated the spirits of Maracatu. That somewhat surprised me: he seemed to have given this happening some meaning, saw it as a bad sign. I liked the devotional song a lot but the new rhythm was hard to pick up for a beginner. We did the song a number of times and moved on. Soon after that our leader’s alfaia cracked, the third one in one evening! In my time with the group this had never happened before. Our leader explained that drums don’t get cracks because someone plays passionately but they do break when they are played nervously, with the wrong kind of energy. I think  he was also devastated by the fact that two of the drums got broken when he was playing them.

My first thought was of a practical character: could the changed in the last few days weather conditions have effected the skin of the drums? Of course, it could be the combination of both: dry air and nervous energy. The last two practice sessions we were preparing for the upcoming workshop with the three renowned Maracatu teachers from Brazil. Our leader arranged for the workshop to happen in Uppsala and was keen on our group making the best of this master class with the masters of Maracatu. Maybe a little too keen. Maybe the pressure was too much and he brought in something extra into those rehearsals.

This made me think of the right effort that has always been a big question for me in many life situations. Strong willed and persistent as I am sometimes, I can keep pushing to only end up in the same place I started. I could have saved the efforts and time by stepping aside in the right moment, had I paid attention and not have become obsessed with the idea of how it should be. Most often I could make a good case for my persistence that in the end is more a sign of stubbornness.

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A certain person came to te Friend’s door

and knocked.

“Who is there?”

“It’s me”

The Friend answered, “Go away. There’s no place

for raw meat at this table.”

The individual went wandering for a year.

Nothing but the fire of separation

can change hypocisy and ego. The person returned

completely cooked,

walked up and down in front of the Friend’s house,

gently knocked.

“Who is it?”

“You.”

“Please come in, my self,

there’s no place in this house for two.

The doubled end of the thread is not what goes through

the eye of the needle…”

Rumi, from The Essential Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks


Nathan’s post on fear of abandonment inspired me to revisit that old companion of mine since childhood. According to psychologists the two main fears that shape our reactions in childhood are fear of abandonment and fear of being overwhelmed by the large world. Already as children we develop defence mechanisms such as withdrawal, pleasing others and others in order to deal with them the best way we can. We have to. We are entirely dependent on our caregivers and have to make it in this world. Interestingly, most of us use the same mechanisms even in adulthood and do not take some time to reflect on how those reactions to the old fears shape our (unconscious) decisions and influence our relationships today.

Pretty much early in life it became clear to me that people and relationships were not there to stay and that nobody could ever truly get me. People were there to teach me something and our time together, however fleeting, was valuable. Some would teach me read in English, others taught me generosity, and others – what mattered to me when I felt those values were violated.  As a child, I was terrified to get lost, that my parents would forget me somewhere. When the waiting became unbearable, I’d convince myself that they did forget me and would start looking for them myself and – of course – got lost, wherever it was they had left me to play. I would finally make it home with the help of strangers, thankful for this opportunity to return and enriched by the experience.

I made my worst fears come true. I guess somehow it was preferable to the waiting to be abandoned. Now it seems funny and sad but I see how through those experiences I’ve learnt the art of getting lost and found and that I would not always need my parents or people I thought I depended upon. Those were pretty useful lessons to learn as a child. I did not become better with directions and often times I get lost in the fields and forest not far from my new home but now I look forward to those brief moments. And never for a second do I feel lost and lonely in a forest full of trees. Getting lost makes me more aware of the potential to be at home wherever I am and to establish connections with others.

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