Out in the courtyard here at the Arbogast retreat center in Goetzis Austria with thirty or forty young children. This the last day of their week of summer camp and they seem to be in constant motion—chattering effortlessly to each other in a language I assume is German. Like human beings everywhere, they have little awareness of the complexity of their communication. Held in our circle of common language practitioners, we focus on the content of our speech and the brilliant functioning of language is mostly unconscious.
Over the past week, I’ve been working on a longer blog post about the place of psychic contraction—about what happens when my usual equanimity vanishes and I travel in worlds of resentment and blame. It’s unusual for me to spend so long on one piece. Mostly I write early in the morning, working from some experience or dream that has caught my attention. I typically spend about an hour or so developing these short pieces. I shape the words and images that have come until each piece has some sense of flow and aliveness.
I almost always have a sense that I could keep wordsmithing—that if I worked longer on a piece, it would be better. But from my experience as a potter, I know that more work is not better. If you work on a piece too long on the potters wheel it loses its life. The clay begins to absorb more and more water and eventually refuses to hold any shape at all. So in my writing, when I get to where the piece feels ‘right’, I paste it into my blog and send it off—before my second thoughts about the necessity for perfection cause me to file it silently in the vast files that never make it beyond my computer files.
I write as a practice of noticing—as a way of understanding and deepening my own experience. Writing every morning helps me enter into and appreciate my own experience. But the selecting and editing of this writing for publishing in my blog or in some other way adds another dimension to the exploration. If I don’t get a piece ‘out’, something important doesn’t happen.
What I publish is more carefully organized and crafted than what I write just for myself. One potential pitfall of my style of writing is that I end up simply presenting a sanitized and clever version of my experience in order to look good in the eyes of my imagined readership. I am sure this happens to some degree, but my intention is to be as honest and helpful as I can. My goal in writing is to present some aspect of human experience in a way that invites my readers to notice and be curious about their own felt experience and the world around them.
At a leadership course I took nearly ten years ago now, I was ‘diagnosed’ as a 4 in a personality typing system distantly related to the enneagram (in which I am certainly a 9 for you devotees out there.) Fours have a strong connection to their own inner life. They tend to be creative and prone to depression or at least dysthymia. This all seemed at least partially true for me, but the most helpful part of my 4 diagnosis was finding out that 4s often need to share what they know. The intensity of their inner life is such that if they don’t teach or write or create, the very energies that enliven them can bring them down.
This feels true for me – I need to teach, write, share with others what I know. I also need to practice – but the sharing is what saves me. Perhaps this is part of the importance of writing to me. My days gallivanting around Europe as a spiritual teacher on the ‘white light circuit’, are numbered. At some point my travel adventures will be not involve traveling to distant lands but just summiting a flight of stairs or traversing the distance from bed to toilet. But this practice of writing—of close observation and then shaping in words and sounds into small missives to send out into the vast universe, this I can do as long as my fingers are willing to cooperate.
But in this moment, I am here in the northwestern corner of Austria, thousands a miles from the Temple. I’m sitting on the edge of a cobblestone courtyard where a young girl speaks in animated tones into her phone. The only word I understand ‘Mama’, but I imagine she is describing the triumphs and challenges of her day at camp. Her excitement and wish to share her experience is palpable.
Children fill the retreat center this weekend here at Arbogast. They seem to run everywhere and fill the space with their energetic sounds. Though I am partial to silence and the sound of the birds, I appreciate what my mother said to me when I once complained about the racket my two little sisters were raising while I was trying to watch TV or do something important: “At least they are happy sounds.”
Still, I am glad these sweet children will be gone by the time our silent retreat begins this evening.
The other day, I got caught in an argument with an old friend. He and I used to be as close as brothers but over the years we have drifted apart. Separate families. Separate lives. We see each other on the rare occasion and are cordial, but that’s about it.
We’ve had to deal with a tricky business matter and though we were disagreeing, I was OK until I heard something second-hand that sent me over the edge. Though the content of the disagreement is quite important, it’s this familiar edge in me that I’m most curious about.
I tend to be a fairly even-tempered person, but over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to study this place of ‘over the edge’ from many different perspectives. I’m going along just fine and then something trips the switch. In an instant go from being kind and generous David to being self-righteous and resentful David. I become convinced of my purity and correctness and all too clearly see the errors of the other person. (I suspect this is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of us not noticing the log in our eye while we see the splinter in the eye of another.) Though this state has the power to take over my thinking in a moment, it’s surprisingly difficult to discern that I am actually in this place because it doesn’t feel like a place at all.
From the inside of my experience of ‘over the edge’, I am merely observing of the truth of the situation: ‘I am right and you are wrong.’ In the midst of being caught the repetitive thinking and judgment, I am quite convinced of the clarity and fairness of my perception. This inability to distinguish reality from perception is at the heart of a number of quite popular Matrix-like movies that explore the possibility that, as the Buddha taught, we spend most of our lives in a dream-like state. I have, however, begun to notice that there is one way I can reliably tell that I am caught up in the cycle of resentment and blame rather than in a more spacious relation to reality.
The ‘tell’ for me is when I find myself rehearsing dialogue in my head. I run through all the clever and irrefutable things I might say to make this other person see the wisdom of my position and the error of their ways. In my mind, it appears that if only I can come up with the perfect thing to say, then the other person will change and I will be released from my problem. These internal dialogues run one after the other and almost all of them end with my imagined triumph and vindication.
The problem is that this mental state of indignant self-justification is extremely painful for the one who is engaged in it. Coming unbidden (perhaps at 3:00 in the morning), it feels impossible to get out of. Like a terrible talk radio station that plays in my mind and though I try to change the station, the dial is stuck.
The challenge at this point is to be able to realize the repetitive and self-reinforcing nature of this mind state. The words and images running through my head masquerade as thinking and problem-solving but are actually repetitive and obsessive. Each clever line in my head simply convinces me more of my blamelessness and the injustice that is being foisted on me. Caught in this mind moment, I am convinced that my situation is intolerable and the only option is to get the other person to change. It’s a matter of principle and I must stand up to this particular injustice.
Now I want to be clear that there is injustice in the world – terrible injustice that we all are called to stand up to—to take action in deed and word to do what we can to end suffering and violence. But what I’m talking about here is something quite different. This place of obsessive objection is mostly the deep desire to have the world conform to my fantasies. I believe that what I see and feel is the one and only Truth, rather than one of many perspectives. This place of ‘over the edge’ is also about the delusion that the solution to my problem is that someone else needs to change. That’s part of the pain of this mind space—the assumption that the only way I can feel better is if YOU do something/say something different. Life in this mind-state is a powerless place that perfectly reinforces its own truth.
For me, the way out of this place is not an easy matter. The first step comes from recognizing I am caught. So when I notice myself running over the same conversation over and over, I begin to suspect that I may not be in my right mind—that the thoughts in my head are not helping me. But even knowing this (again the test case is the 3 a.m. one) I most often can’t just stop thinking these thoughts. The flow of this mental rumination is amazingly compelling.
One direction that has sometimes proved helpful in releasing me from this cycle of blame and resentment is to remember what I really want. (Note: the root of the Pali word for mindfulness is ‘to remember.’)
It’s a question I ask often in my work as a life and leadership coach. “What do you really want?” I’ve been told that this question itself is narcissistic and leads to a small view of action and possibility. But I don’t think so. When I ask people what they really want, and stay with the question, they almost always go beyond external things. When we stop and consider, we often find that what we want has to do with connection and relationship, with freedom and ease rather than just getting our way.
For me, when I ask this question, ‘What do I really want?’, the answer that arises is about the wish to wake up to the fullness of my life. I want to meet whatever comes my way with curiosity and engagement. I want to appreciate each moment of my precious and brief life, regardless of the content. When I can touch this deep inner wish, it sometimes has the power to release me from the grip of complaint and resentment.
But it’s touch and go at this point. I can remember that I want to wake up to my life, but in the moment I’m also caught up by the feeling that I really, really want to be right – to be justified. Sometimes it takes all the clarity I can muster to intentionally turn my mind toward myself and the very real work I have to do rather than staying lost in the world of blame and self-righteousness. Sometimes I am able to do this, sometimes I am not.
Talking to friends helps too.
The other day, still in the grip of it all, I spoke with two dear friends about my stuckness and resentment. Both friends met me with curiosity and compassion. One suggested I give voice from the place of the problem itself and then from the perspective of my old friend. This was helpful. My other friend was willing to listen and to acknowledge the humanness of this place of contraction. Both helped break the trance of righteousness and bring me back to a place of more possibility and freedom.
This ‘over the edge’ place does not last forever (for most of us). We cannot will our way out but we are, at some point, released. I am always grateful when I find my way out. It never feels like I have vanquished something, but more like some release has been granted to me.
The problem with my friend still remains but I am now recommitted to moving forward without expecting him to be different. I don’t know if we’ll be able to work out our issue, but I do know that I am not ‘right’ in any absolute sense. I still hold strong opinions about the matter at hand, but while working things out, I can at least continue to keep my focus on myself and my actions rather than being caught in the cycle of resentment and blame.
It’s not much, but it’s a big deal.
What is the same: variegated grass in the garden – hardy and of the same variety as I have at the Temple. Wild blackberries hanging in thorns by the path. A stream running through the woods. Green trees. A cool breeze under the tree while the hot sun shines.
What’s different: flies – I’d forgotten the flies here at the retreat center. Common houseflies that don’t bite, but walked step by excruciating step over my scalp last year during meditation. I’m here at a retreat center in Gotzis, Austria with Melissa to lead a meditation retreat for mindfulness practitioners. We flew overnight into Zurich.
Groggy and slightly disoriented from just a few hours sleep, we are picked up by our host at the airport. We drive northeast through the Swiss countryside, complete with fields of picturesque sunflowers nodding in the afternoon breeze. Soon Lake Boddenzee appears in the distance. Then, just before the Austrian border, the sign for Rheineck (bend in the Rhine). As we drive by, I imagine my father’s fathers and mothers working these hilly fields—that perhaps I am of Swiss heritage, not German as I have always thought. Surely Rynick is an Ellis Island adaptation of Rheineck
Arriving at the retreat center, I unpack and then take my weary body outside for a short stumble in the late afternoon. I walk down by the farm in the valley, then back up the hill to sit on a wooden bench overlooking the pasture. Steep wooded hills in the near distance—more dramatic than what I’m used to—patches of sheer rock faces are visible on some of the hills. I sit on the bench in a near-stupor. Appreciating the shade and the cool breeze. Hot in the sun, but low humidity and cool with the wind on my bald head. I try to appreciate the sameness and difference of this place. Jerked awake by my reflexes just before I fall asleep and off the bench, I do some desultory qi gong moves and return to our room.
Fersten-zee Aenglish? (Do you understand English?) Ich ferstia kin Deutsch. (I don’t understand any German.) Lying on our beds before dinner, we practice our first German lesson from Melissa’s ipad. My mouth feels full of mashed potatoes as I try to imitate the unfamiliar sounds of the man doing his best to teach us. Later at dinner, the new words tumble in my head but cannot find their way into utterance. Must review lesson one again tomorrow. My learning goal: to say (in context) the true but paradoxical sentence: ‘I don’t understand any German.’
Summer sesshin begins this evening. It’s the Boundless Way Zen annual seven-day residential retreat. People are coming from around the northeast and from across the ocean to live and practice together here at the Temple. This place that usually serves as a home for the two resident teachers, becomes transformed to a residential practice center. It’s a little like a really big and really quiet party that goes on for a week.
We get up early and spend a lot of time sitting in stillness and silence together. There are also Zen talks, caretaking practice and individual meetings with the teachers. Though I’ve been on countless retreats over the past three plus decades of training and teaching, I never really know what to expect.
I’m always a little nervous heading in. It’s like beginning an extended trek in the high mountains. Even if you’ve been many times before, you don’t really know what you will encounter this time. There will be high wind-swept peaks and dense forests tangled with underbrush. Moments of elation that take your breath away and moments of discouragement that make it hard to go on.
For me, practicing together in this intensive format is one of the most extraordinary things a human being can do. We have the opportunity to encounter ourselves in all our myriad identities. With so few distractions, we see, up close and personally, how our minds participate in creating the world. We can see how thoughts and emotions just come and go of their own accord. And we can begin to find a place that is spacious enough to allow all things, including ourselves to be just as we are.
[special thanks to Gahan Wilson for the above favorite cartoon--my favorite ever.]
I went to the Apple store in the Natick Mall last Saturday. I didn’t mean to go, but Melissa has been having trouble with her new Macbook Air and I volunteered to accompany her to the ‘genius bar.’
For those of you who are not local, I just want to mention that the Natick Mall is a shopping Armageddon. It’s one of the major feature of the landscape in the Boston metroplex; like the Charles River or the Prudential Building. But being a rather reluctant shopper (excluding buying outdoor gear and fantastic moisture-wicking, soft and stretchy clothing guaranteed to keep you cool or warm in all temperatures) I had never been to the Natick Mall.
We get in the car in the early afternoon and set Melissa’s iphone (an ancient version 4) GPS for the Apple store. We do fine till we got to The Mall. But once we turn into this dense concentration of capitalism and concrete, even our trusty GPS is overwhelmed. We can see signs for ‘Preferred Parking’ and a big Neiman Marcus building, but our GPS directions became nonsensical: ‘turn left on ……… [silence], then turn right.’ Unnamed streets. Dead ends. Cars parked everywhere.
It is a brilliant summer day. Blue sky and temperatures in the 80’s. Everyone should be at the beach, or in the woods, or at outdoors is some fashion. But here, at this grand palace of purchase, the parking lots are without vacancy. Spotting a man slowly strapping his small son into a big black SUV, we wait semi-patiently while he thoroughly completes the process, lazily ambles over to the drivers side, and finally gets in the driver’s seat and backs out.
We happened to be near the Sears store, so we followed the advice of the ancient Master who said: “Enter here.” We went through the multiple glass doors—right into the tool department.
I remember, as a young boy in the late 1950’s, pouring through the Sears and Robuck catalogue. My brother and I paid particular attention to the sports and outdoor equipment. We’d carefully study the baseball gloves that we knew we would never get. Was it better to get a catcher’s mitt or a more generalized outfielder’s glove? A specialized first base-man’s mitt was practically a necessity for playing first base, but would it be worth the trade-off of limited use?
With each item, Sears and Roebuck’s made our dilemma even more enticing. We could always choose between three categories: good, better and best. The middle quality generally seemed the best choice. Though we figured that if we were fabulously rich, we would certainly buy ‘best’. I didn’t even really like baseball – the whole hand-eye coordination was never my strong suit, but I dutifully played with the neighborhood kids though I had a secret longing to stay at home reading books and making things.
As we wander through the Sears store hoping to find a way into The Mall, it appears to be a world unto itself—filled with everything from manly shining barbeque grills to racks of petite sundresses on sale. You can buy a sweet looking enamel red rolling cabinet to hold all the tools you could ever want or bring home the perfect burr grinder for you daily caffeine fix. Everything the modern American needs for good living is available (at a good price) here at Sears. But in spite of this, the store wasn’t that busy and the employees looked bored and distracted.
Once we meandered into The Mall itself, the full impact hit us. American Shopping Culture is one of the true marvels of the modern world. When we have visitors from other countries, many of them insist on including shopping as part of their adventure into the authentic American experience. And this particular Mall is occupies a place near the pinnacle of Malls across the country.
Endless wide corridors of shiny stores selling sneakers, hand-made soaps, video games, and a clothes for every life-style and self-image. The is a store that sells personalized covers for phones and computers so you can make sure you are like everyone else and slightly special at the same time. There are lots of people wandering these huge hallways, but the carefully crafted flow pattern moves us by each other with minimal contact. As I now think back over my time in the Mall, I couldn’t describe one person we saw there, though I remember it being a veritable United Nations of colors and styles of dress.
Natural light filters in from unseen skylights above. It’s a bright place and the temperature is perfectly nonexistent. But I am assaulted by the noise level is both unobtrusive and seems perfectly pitched to disturb my sense of being grounded in my body. As we begin finding our way to the Apple Store, I become convinced they pumped something into the air here. My senses are slightly dulled and I enter a mild and not altogether unpleasant trance. I feel like the good-natured volunteer who goes on stage with the hypnotist who reassures me even as I know I will soon be convinced to do many silly things.
Walking down this commercial corridor, my eyes wander incessantly and I peer into each store to see what it might have for me. Of course, not only are there endless shops on either side, but the center is also occupied with carts selling all the little things that make life worth living.
We navigate a couple hundred yards down to the intersection of the corridors and then out on another corridor that looks pretty much exactly the same but is where the Apple Store appears to be. On the way, we walk by a lovely water feature, black stone that at first looks like an infinity pool with water coming down the side. This is a welcome and incongruous sight. The walkway inclines up by the wet stone and we see the top of it is solid, but covered by a continuous film of water. And rising above in our line of view is, of course, a new car. I didn’t get close enough to see if it was a raffle, or simply a reminder of the wonderful possibilities of life. (Note to self: Move forward on plans for a water feature in the Temple gardens. Car is probably not necessary.)
The Apple Store itself is full of people hovering around freestanding tables with sample computers (i)phones and (i)tablets—peripherals are relegated to wall-space. We are greeted immediately by a salesperson who directs us to another salesperson who confirms Melissa’s appointment and further directs us to the ‘genius bar’ itself. (Which appears to be simply another table with a couple open laptops attached to it.) Melissa stays here to wait for her ‘genius’ and I go back to the front of the store to look at some ipads.
Because, you see, I didn’t just come to keep Melissa company. I came because I have a problem—a very serious first-world problem. I do most of my writing on the computer, so when I travel, I carry by MacBook Air. It weighs a whopping three pounds and it seems to me that I should be able to find something smaller and lighter that I can use for writing. Now I know that on one level, this is ridiculous. Five years ago, people were happy to lug around laptop computers that weighed six or seven pounds and felt amazingly portable. But now, owning one of the thinnest and lightest computers available, I’m pretty sure I need something smaller and lighter.
I’m here to look at the ipad Air that weighs in at a svelte one pound. There are six ipads spread spaciously around one table. Every one has a person fondling it as the bright screens sparkle with their nearly infinite number of tiny multi-colored pixels. When it’s my turn, I pick up one version of this nine by seven inch piece of technology. With perfectly rounded corners if is thin yet substantial. It rests easily in my hand—smooth and solid. This tiny piece of technology is the acme of our consumer and computer culture. Amazingly functional tool and a cultural fetish—fully imbued with Apple’s symbolic meaning of creativity and individuality. I am in awe—here so close to one of the driving engines of the modern world—the Apple gods.
A salesperson comes over and prods me for questions. The base model is only $500, but he confides in me that his wife bought one of these and then had to buy the next model, because this one only comes with 16GB of storage space. The 32GB model is only $100 more. When I ask about an external keyboard, he shows me a beautiful red case containing a keyboard with a silky feel and a place for the ipad air. It too is a marvel of design and engineering – holding the ipad at an adjustable angle and with the black keys giving the same feel and sound as the keyboard of a laptop. This too is only $100 more. And this helpful man also suggests getting Apple care, which is again, only $100 more. He’s also kind enough to mention that though he doesn’t get the extended warrantee on his refrigerator or on his car, he always does on his electronics.
I think this is called ‘up-selling.’ I’ve held the sweet little ipad air in my hands and been delighted by it’s amazing screen and quickly gone from $500 (actually a sizeable chunk of change) to $800 – to get what ‘really makes sense.’ From ‘good’ to ‘better’ and we haven’t even considered ‘best’. Just like the baseball gloves.
The ipad and keyboard will tickle the scales at an unassuming 1 pound 12 ounces. So I’m looking at a cost of about $40 per ounce for the twenty ounces I would lose carrying this modern miracle as opposed to my ‘old-fashioned’ Macbook Air.
But by this point in the process, it’s not just about the weight. (Was it ever?) I can now visualize this compact and well-designed cover and keyboard in my backpack. I imagine pulling it easily out to write a few insightful sentences or to quickly check email in a café in Dublin or Milan or even Worcester. It’s so well-designed and easy to use. Of course I don’t really ‘need’ it. But it is totally cool and I can afford it…
In a daze of desire, I drift back to find Melissa. Her computer has been examined and ‘fixed’ by a rather unassuming and quick-talking genius. (Unfortunately, when we return home she finds the problem of connecting to the internet is exactly the same as when we had left.)
I do manage walk out of the store without buying anything. It was a close call. I think my saving grace was finding out that if I wanted to use Microsoft Office on the ipad air, I would have to ‘rent’ the software for $70 a year. Outrageous.
But walking out of the store empty-handed, I feel vaguely empty and unmoored. The image of me with an Apple bag filled with an ipad air and a case and keyboard is vivid. I can feel the thrill of this wondrous new technology, that could have been in my possession.
We walk back the way we came – past the stores and the people. We don’t stop anywhere though I’m tempted by the idea of a new pair of wildly colored sneakers and Melissa is almost ensnared by the smell of hand-made soaps and oils.
Back in Sears, I gravitate to a bank of TVs that are showing the World Cup match between Columbia and some other team. Each time the referee calls a foul, the action stops and we get a close-up of the faces of both the foulee and the fouler. The former cannot believe the indignity he has suffered at the hands of such a dastardly villain, and the later is indignant to be accused of something he would never dream of doing.
I stand mesmerized by the wall of grand TVs. Though the action is identical on each screen, the color of the grass is slightly different. As if an artist were experimenting with different shades of green to find the perfect hue. The camera angles are zooming in and out in unison – a gorgeous ballet of multiple perspectives in this ‘beautiful’ game.
I look up and Melissa is no longer next to me. I watch the game a little longer, (when you’re lost, stay right where you are to let yourself be found) and then look around. Melissa is nowhere to be seen. I take out my (Android) phone and call her. She picks up (on her iphone 4) and says she is waiting by the exit. ‘By the tools?’ I say. ‘No, by the washing machines.’ I walk toward the exit we came in and ascertain it is definitely not near the washing machines. I walk toward the exit on the other side of the store and eventually make visual contact with my beloved. We terminate cell connection, cross the distance between, then walk back through the tools. I hardly glance at the red enamel five foot rolling tool cabinets.
Through the doors, we’re out in the blazing summer sun again. We’re not hungry and there are no good movies playing, so we decide to go to Whole Earth, do some food shopping and go home.
I am filled with a kind of deadness. Driving in the hot sun of a summer afternoon, I wonder about the emptiness of my life. I have just wasted a perfectly good afternoon driving too and from the Natick Mall. And I have bought nothing. The glut of choices at Whole Earth reassures me slightly. I buy a small piece of Valdeon blue cheese and a hunk of aged gruyere for later consumption. And at the liquor store next door brows the plethora of artisanal beer. I end up choosing an organic IPA ‘crafted’ in Vermont that claims a perfect blend of bitter hops and smooth and fruity malt.
But, driving toward Worcester on route 9, with the a/c on against the heat of the afternoon, it’s clear this small culinary spree was not enough to save me. I feel lost and adrift.
Arriving at the Temple, we put the car in the garage and walk to the back door of the Temple. I am strangely heartened by the row of four oblong stones that grace the edge of the little garden around the old tree stump. Putting away the groceries, I crack open a smooth cold one and wander into the garden seeking solace.