Monday, November 8, 2010

Telling the truth

I have been waiting for months for the release of the first of three volumes of Mark Twain's autobiography, which he forbade to be published until 100 years after his death. It is an intimidating volume: small print and over 600 pages. However, my curiosity about what he had to say that he felt needed to wait 100 years transcends the intimidation. I've just begun reading it, and apparently Twain struggled in his efforts to write it. One of the struggles was his concern for telling the truth as he understood it without offending others personally.

"As he explained to an interviewer in 1899: "A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way. In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons." Posthumous publication was also supposed to make it easier for Clemens to confess even shameful parts of his own story, but that goal proved to be illusory. In that same 1899 interview he admitted that a "man cannot tell the whole truth about himself, even if convinced that what he wrote would never be seen by others." (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Harriet Elinor Smith, Editor, University of California Press, Berkeley, copyright 2010, 2001 by the Mark Twain Foundation, p. 2).
I agree with Twain. We cannot tell the truth of ourselves for two reasons. The first is that whatever "truth" we think we know about either ourselves, others, or a situation is, of necessity, only a partial truth or awareness. The second reason, which derives from the first, is that we are always in the process of furthering our understanding. And of course, there is also the dilemma that most of us can barely be fully honest with ourselves, never mind with others. The gift that is within this inability to be truthful, however, is that once we recognize our limitations, we can hopefully be more patient, more open, and more compassionate.
One can only wish that in this day and time speakers of "truth" would be so concerned about hurting other people's feelings as was Twain. I do believe in the importance of speaking truth to power and being as honest as we can. However, truth speaking need not be malicious. I remember the scene in the movie "Ghandi," when the Mahatma and the British Viceroy met for the first time. As I recall, in the scene Ghandi extends his hand to the Viceroy and says to him that he knows that his activities must have caused the Viceroy pain or difficulty (I don't recall the exact words.) and he continues by saying "I hope it will not come between us as men."
In today's world we stand pointing the finger at the other person as the sole source of the maliciousness and lack of civility in our exchanges. Sadly, most of the public verbal exchanges do not come close to qualifying as either dialogue or conversation. Would that we could find our way to both. Maliciousness in one's behavior or being is an astronomical impediment to spiritual progress.

The Gold Standard of Pity Parties

I can be the Martha Stewart of pity parties and I know how to throw a good one. From early childhood I struggled with depression and I've made some very bad choices over the course of my life. Listing them would take too much time, be overwhelming, and as well, it would be pointless. The important thing is that as I've grown personally and healed and I've been willing to confront my dark side. One of the hors d'oeuvres I've always liked to serve at my pity parties is the "what-might-have-been" recipe. It's been a frequent favorite.

This past week I was watching an episode of Oprah that focused on the incidence of sexual abuse of boys. During the show, the issue of forgiveness came up, and for me, one of the pearls from that show was a comment that Oprah made that part of the forgiveness process includes the task to "give" up our wishful thinking that the past might have been different. This struck a chord with me. I've always been aware that we have to let go of the "what-might-have-been" thinking, but I've never before associated it with the forgiveness process.

What I realized at that "aha" moment was that the person I've most had difficulty forgiving was myself and my bad choices. During way too many decades of my life I have run away from myself even down to the simplest decision not to major in English in college when literature was my deepest passion. For way too long I focused on trying to be what I thought others needed me to be. Indeed there have been many people in my life who were quite happy to encourage me to try to march goose-step with their pictures of who I should be, and thus I certainly have known betrayal.

However, the biggest betrayal was self-inflicted, and anytime I spend wishing I had done this or that differently is simply another form of self-betrayal. The truth is that I did not do things differently. And what if I had? Which of the many, many blessings would I have missed, and do I really think I'm so smart that I could do a more perfected life if given a do-over? I don't think so. If there is anything I've learned in life, it's that it really is true that at each moment we all do the best we can. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut in Cat's Cradle, "We do doodily do, what we must muddily must."
I have written before of The Mother's instruction to be simply goodwilled and to do the best that one can (August 18 blog). Perhaps once we have been willing to look at and acknowledge our dark side, the person to whom we should most afford our goodwill is ourselves and to make a space for the light within that is our true Self. Self-reproach should not be confused with self-evaluation. Indeed, self-reproach is just another hors d'oeuvre at a Martha Stewart pity party. The real task is to keep on turning toward that which is our truest and best self. Recognize the tar baby (Sept. 30 blog) and keep on moving!

Monday, October 18, 2010

A plea for more cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort that is experienced emotionally and intellectually when there is recognition of two or more competing ideas that seem to be opposites and yet are true. A simple example is that I want to lose weight and I make food choices that contribute to weight gain. We need to have more cognitive dissonance in our global thinking, our national thinking, our local thinking, and most of all in our inner awareness. I submit that the person who experiences little or no cognitive dissonance is not paying attention, or is operating strictly out of an emotional or intellectual domain.
Most of us humans want life to be a fill-in the blank proposition: there is one right answer. In 10th grade science class, I can still see the teacher telling us that the atom was the smallest possible particle and later another scientist earnestly telling me that there was no longer anything new to be discovered in the world. We had arrived. We now knew it all. Well, that was in the 60s and of course, we, as a human race, have become considerably "dumber" than we were then. Life certainly wasn't really so simple then and it is even less so now.
We have begun to recognize that the world we live in materially, conceptually, and relationally is far more complex than we ever dreamed possible. At least part of the wide conflicts with which we struggle today at every level derive from our desire to still cram life into a fill-in the blank test. Like opposing armadas on stormy seas we fling ourselves against one another in the name of religion, nations, gender, (take your pick of the possible conflicts), believing that if we can simply defeat and/or annihilate the other, life will finally be like it is supposed to be. (Witness both the right and the left in the US claiming to "take our country back.")
The truth is that while "the other" certainly offers challenges to our way of thinking and being, it is the stormy sea itself which is really tossing us about. When we lived in relative isolation, holding on to our way of thinking and being was easier. Some of my ancestors lived their lives in the isolated mountains of North Carolina, where a "furriner" was anyone who lived more than a couple of miles away. With all our many modes of obtaining 24/7 instant information, we no longer have the luxury of such narrow thinking. It simply won't work anymore.
Thus comes my plea for more cognitive dissonance and a stronger capacity to live with it. I can hold on to my narrow view that my religion is the only right one only if I make absolutely no room for dialogue and respect. If I begin to recognize that the other is as sincere and devout in his/her faith as I am in mine, I am going to feel some measure of discomfort. Religion is a simple example and there are myriads more examples of our various conflicts with one another that are far more complex and demanding. Our choice is to continue to charge one another, weapons rattling, or to bring in dialogue, discernment, and critical thinking in order to gain better and more effective tools for learning how to live in this world.
My concern for the US citizenry in particular is that we seem, on the whole, to be deeply fearful of critical thinking. There is the complaint that "you can't trust what you read because one paper or news show says one thing and another says its opposite." Well, yes, there is some truth that we cannot simply trust what we read or hear. However, that truth does not free us from the responsibility and obligation to study, learn, and think critically about the issues at hand. It is not an excuse for saying "to hell with it." We have to be willing and able to tolerate the cognitive dissonance that emerges from conflicting information, ideas, and emotions.
There is no one truth out there. There are only pieces of the truth that we can grasp. When my 10th grade science teacher declared that the atom is the smallest possible particle, it was "true" then because it was all we knew. Despite how fond we are of our human abilities, we are, after all, as humans extremely limited. Critical thinking allows us to recognize our limitations. No matter how carefully the question is worded, we should much more frequently assume that we have no clue what answer to write on a fill-in the blank test . We should demand more varied and complex "answers" as options.
Will this make living easier? No, but it will make it richer and hopefully less noisy and acrimonious. Personally I have become totally bored with conversations in which the participants get into screaming matches because each person insists on the correctness of their own point of view. Often what I would like to do in such situations (if the decibel level ever died down enough that I thought I could be heard) is say "You know what, folks, the real answer is probably some of all of the above." A measure of cognitive dissonance is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is a healthy way of being.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The healing of spirituality and the spirituality of healing

Last Sunday evening, I listened to a very intelligent and instructive discussion on a program on NPR called New Dimensions . It was basically a discussion of the healing process and, as I understood it, the premise was that one should not spend time thinking about or talking about the negative experiences in one's life because it keeps us trapped in our traumas.
I suspect the truth the speaker was presenting is similar to that which I understand from the Uncle Remus story of Bre'r Rabbit and the tar baby:

Bre'r Rabbit is just toodling along the path one sunny day and suddenly, he sees a tar baby sitting in the path. Now Bre'r Rabbit doesn't seem to recognize that this thing is a tar baby; he thinks it's real, and so he sings out a friendly "howdy." When the tar baby doesn't answer Bre'r Rabbit becomes incensed and begins to demand that the tar baby answer. Eventually he punches the tar baby. Because it is a tar baby, his fist becomes stuck. He throws another punch with the same result and so on and so on until he is entirely stuck body and soul to this tar baby.

The pain and trauma life presents us can become the tar baby in our lives: we think it's real and we demand that it answer us back and give an account for itself and we begin an all-out fisticuffs with it, and indeed we just wind-up totally trapped in it and going nowhere. I think that is the point the person being interviewed was trying to get across. If so, I get it and I've been there and done that. From that perspective I totally get the current zeitgeist of "thinking and being positive."

However, I get off the "be positive" train at some point because there is another, equally compelling truth. What I know about pain and trauma and healing from it, is that it's what we don't look at that will bite us in the butt. I see it all the time. We don't want to talk about painful experiences because it is, well, just too painful. Understood. It's just that not looking at it won't work any more than getting stuck in it.

Talking about the past can become a tar baby experience. However, not talking about it can easily become running away. Sometimes one doesn't even recognize that one is running away. Trying to run away from pain and trauma is just another tar baby form. We must be able to recognize and understand the past so that we can move on. If we don't, we run the risk of not seeing the tar baby, and it takes on a life of it's own in our unconscious and crawls into the driver's seat of our lives.

The approach to healing that I like best is that presented in J. R. R. Tolkein's The Hobbit. The Hobbit, Bilbo, journeys with the dwarves to find the treasure that was stolen from them. They, along with Gandalf, the Wizard, arrive at a point in the path that goes through a deep, dark, and frightening wood, called Mirkwood. It is at this point that Gandalf, who has been shepherding them through their journey, tells them he must leave them. Because Gandalf has told them how terrible and dangerous Mirkwood is, Bilbo is distraught and begs of Gandalf, "Do we really have to go through?" "Yes, you do!...You must either go through or give up your quest." (J. R. R. Tolkein, The Hobbitt, or There and Back Again, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1984, copyright 1966 by J. R. R. Tolkein, p. 127).

When we are born into this world, we are without guile or fear and we see no separation between ourselves and what we see. This oneness is, perhaps, our deepest spirituality and truth of who we are. Along the journey of our human lives, however, we experience separation and we become more disconnected not only from others, but from our true nature as well. Initially the journey may seem exciting and fun. Eventually, if we're lucky, a niggling yearning emerges that will not go away and we begin a quest for this ephemeral thing with no name, which we believe to be our rightful treasure. And it is.

We begin our quest for the healing of our spiritual wounding, the loss of our sense of oneness. Lost, we go down many rabbit paths and dead ends. We may not at first recognize that our separation is a spiritual wound nor that our search for healing from our pain is itself a spiritual journey.However clumsily at times, we are all drawn into a healing process that eventually, if we're lucky, we recognize as a spiritual quest.

The spiritualist who does not want to "look at all that negative stuff" simply uses spirituality as a way to run away. The healing traveler who does not ultimately recognize the pain as a gift, risks becoming caught up with a tar baby.The dictum that we must either grow through our pain, our Mirkwood, or give up our quest is true. Whether we run away from our pain or we become stuck in it, we lose sight of the true quest and we don't find our rightful treasure.

The truth is that we must stay on our path (note to self: not that of another's!) and we must as courageously and honestly as possible face whatever comes our way and learn the lessons open to us. It is not always a positive journey in the sense of "no pain, no shame." It can be always a positive journey, however, if we don't give up and we move through it and reclaim our treasure. There is no easy way. We cannot go around, over, nor under. The only way is to go through the dark forest of Mirkwood. The spiritual wounding can be healed and the healing journey can be a profoundly spiritual experience with gifts beyond measure.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sorting it all out...

In my day job which pays my bills, I work with the severely mentally ill. Recently I called my boss for some supervision on a particularly difficult situation that had me somewhat off center. I respect my boss for his clinical skills: he's experienced, well trained, and he's no drama queen. It's a good combination.
He's new to the job, so he is just getting to know our clients and their stories. Thus I had to do some "catch up" for him about this particular case, and he very quickly realized how complicated it is. I shared with him all the relevant points of my thinking and concerns and I could tell that he was really listening. Finally, he said to me, "I'm hearing all your reasoning, but what does your heart tell you?" My answer was, "My heart doesn't tell me anything!"
He was surprised and I needed to explain. I gave him a shortened explanation. Here is the long one:
In all my years of living, I have never encountered anyone, anything, nor any situation that was simple - not for the heart nor for the mind. This experience has only become more true over time. To be quite truthful, I have never, never understood the "split" between the heart and the mind. And that was what he was asking me to do, to give him that non-existent split.
Did he want me to tell him that I could see (my mind at work) the improvement in the child's life in foster care? Did he want me to tell him that (my heart pumping) I begrudged this child's new found advantages or that I (my heart pumping) do not share the child's mother's heartbreak
I don't understand the so-called split between heart and mind because my mind does not concern itself ever with anything that the heart does not care about and the heart, not an entirely blind spot, does make calls and recognizes the sometimes wrenching complexities with which we humans must deal. A heart without a mind as companion births a fool as does a mind without a heart.
I suppose for some the idea of a "Data" (familiar to Star Trek fans) - an entirely rational entity - is an ideal toward which we all should strive. I do not share this wish. For if life is meant to be entirely rational, then what is the role of human passion which so consumes us and presses us forward toward the impossible? And if we have no emotions, then what, indeed, is the purpose of being human?
Do I have answers for these questions? No, absolutely not. I just know in my Soul of souls, that our being so human, so flawed, and yes sometimes so irrational, is not an accident. There is a purpose. I don't "get it." I'm still trying to "get it" in my own life, never mind trying to help others get it in theirs (which I'm supposedly paid to do). Should I try to compartmentalize myself into "heart" and "mind?" I don't think so, for indeed, what would be the point?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sick of Summer

I've been irritable lately and not feeling very well. Someone commented recently that I didn't look like I felt very well and I replied, "No, I haven't been feeling well...maybe I'm just sick of summer!" She laughed. However, this time every year I'm truly fed up with the oppressive heat. I am so hot natured that whenever I'm in a group and someone asks me whether I think it's too cold, my response is always, "I'm the wrong person to ask." If it's too cold for me, then it is likely that everyone else in the group has died from hypothermia.
I can get down on myself when I'm so bitchy and I wish I weren't. However, the reality is, at least at present, that I'm a good deal away from perfect or serene or whatever the illusive state of being is that I seek, and I am all too frequently confronted with the reality of me. During my life I have often watched, with some wonder, people who seem to be so utterly sure of themselves and their own reality. I so constantly question my own assumptions about myself and my perceptions of the world that the older I grow the dumber I feel.
My only comfort is that in terms of spiritual growth, which is utimately what is meant by personal growth, that knowing ourselves is the greatest confrontation and task. Even as a young child I remember asking my mother how one knows when God is commanding one to do something. I had been told the story of Abraham being instructed to kill his son and, I reasonably asked, "What if God tells me to kill someone?" A very legitimate question. My mother, who I know now was but a youth in her own right, was disconcerted and admonished me that God would never tell me to do such a thing.
I was not then assuaged and I am not now. Even a cursory following of the news rapidly reveals how many of us humans in the name of our respective religions vow that we are only doing God's will. I've never been certain about how I can separate my own human egoistic aspirations from that of the purity of God's will. I'm not that trusting of my ego. I am even sometimes jealous of others' seeming certitude.
Yet I must join The Mother in her jest of such human frailty when she shared a joke about the same subject:
"You know the story of the irritable elephant, his mahout and the man who would not make way for the elephant. Standing in the middle of the road, the man said to the mahout, "The divine Will is in me and the divine Will wants me not to move." The driver, a man of some wit, answered, "But the divine Will in the elephant wants you to move!" (March 14, 1951, The Mother, Questions and Answers 1950-1951, Volume 4, page 208)
I'm continuing to try to get out of the way of the Divine Will and life goes on.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Becoming who you already are...

"It is so good to be simple, simply goodwilled, to do the best one can, and in the best way possible; not to build anything very considerable but only to aspire for progress, for light, a peace full of goodwill, and let That which knows in the world decide for you what you will become and what you will have to do." The Mother, July 21, 1954, from The Mother, Collected Works, Vol. 6 Questions and Answers 1954, p.248.
We have all heard the dictum "become who you already are." Once the question was put to me, "why don't you let people see who you really are?" That was decades ago. I was flummoxed by the question then, but knowing what I know now, I would have answered, "because I don't know who I am."
Becoming who we already are seems simple on the face of it, yet the recognition of that "who" requires, at least for most of us, a lifetime of relentless self-evaluations, assessments and recognitions. The above quote from The Mother is on my refrigerator because I recognized in her words something profound that I needed to come to terms with. Particularly, I wrestled with the words, ..."let That which knows in the world decide for you what you will become and what you will have to do."
How could that surrender be accomplished? Didn't I have to do something by way of collaboration? These questions brought out the executive in me. Where's the plan, the strategy, the goals, and the to-do list? I've travelled down a million rabbit paths, some of them so bizarre as to boggle the mind. I've longed for a deeply spiritual, connected life, and it has usually seemed to me that to live in this material world is to live entirely contrary to what I longed for. I've resented the material world and all its demands and I've rebelled against it.
Then there was a period of simply letting go of all my executive plans and there was an effort to "just be" - be goodwilled, do the best I could and in the best way possible. After some time of these efforts, what began to emerge was a growing awareness that the one part of the being that I had actively and fiercely rejected was the passion for reading and writing.
Even with this growing awareness, however, there was the desire to "take control, to make a plan." Finally, I simply began to read and write again, without struggle and without any desire to "build anything very great." I just did it with an intense awareness that for whatever reason, these things are a core part of my heart and soul and who I am. There has been a peace that has descended, a peace that I have never known before, and the writing happens without rancour or struggle. There is a becoming of who I already am.
There are no answers to questions of why, or what does the future hold. There is only this moment, which by the Grace of the Divine feels deeply connected.