Not Too Soon

We often delay beginning our creative or spiritual work with the false belief that we must be ‘ready.’

It’s a protective measure, meant to preserve our egos and ward off detectable inadequacies.

I’ve of course been guilty of this same delaying strategy in my own professional life, in my creative life, in what amounts to my spiritual practice. I’ve dallied and delayed, and I’ve put off action by waiting for whatever skills I’m trying to flex to be primed, as if I’d just gone through a Rocky-like training montage out of sight of everyone in order to unveil to a surprised and unsuspecting world just how awesome I am.

Life is made in the doing, in the trying, in the failing and re-trying. We cannot be ready for this. There is certainly prepared, educated, practiced, but ready is something else. Ready is only accomplished in the doing of the thing in real time and with real consequences. Ready is open to the moment, to the nexus of performing work and to being yourself, to struggling and being vulnerable. Ready is being open to failing.

Waiting to be ready, as tantalizing an option at that is, only delays progress. Ready sounds like it’s about the future, but it’s really about the now. And as we all know, now is all we’ve got.

This One You Feed podcast addresses, among several other ideas, the fallacy of being ready in an interview with Srini Rao. Check it out here.

The Bait and the Hook

For several years now, I’ve been working on incorporating a mindfulness practice into my daily (hourly) life.

I began the practice to deal with anxiety; as any sufferer of anxiety will tell you, being in the present is the antithesis of fear and panic, which depend on a tacky combination of circuitous inner dialogue, self-denigrating thoughts and a repetitive regurgitation of previously-felt emotion.

There’s usually a bevy of compulsive behaviors that come bundled in there, behaviors that are meant to drive off the fear and panic.

One of my challenges is that the primary way of coping with anxiety—using deep breathing and other grounded senses to bring me back into the present moment—runs counter to the work necessary for being a writer.

For me, writing requires a deep dive into memory and imagination that often means plunging into that very quagmire of inner dialogue, destructive thoughts and stale emotion that typically trigger anxiety, panic attacks, etc.

Fun.

I discovered Pema Chodron’s work near the beginning of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve found tracking on the Tibetan concept of shenpa to be useful for navigating these seemingly contradictory states of being. Here’s an excellent break-down by Chodron herself.

I’ve written many times in this blog about how very much I suck at noticing that I’m hooked. That doesn’t negate the fact that my goal is to pay better attention, to feel those triggers and those urges and not bite. 

I will fail, of course. And that's why I must begin again.

 

Resolute

Acknowledging the new year and the natural inclination to reassess and renew that the turning of a calendar page brings, the time has come for me to make some resolutions for 2017.

Here are a few:

Blog Harder. (‘Blog Harder’ really should be the name of a 'My Dinner with Andre' style movie) Too often I wait until ideas develop more fully before committing a blog to this website; I would like to remember that some of my favorite bloggers write short and succinct entries. And while ‘short’ and ‘succinct’ aren’t typically my thing, attempting to be so will—I hope—help my blogging output.

Be Mindful Better. ‘Mindfulness’ has become one of those buzzwords and social movements that has me naturally shying away from it, because I’m such a goddamned rebel. Still. Practicing meditation and mindfulness these past couple years has benefited me much. A re-dedication to the practice seems in order – more mindful mindfulness?.

Create More. I have been writing. Really. It’s been slow going. (Novel writing is naturally slow, or at least methinks that it should be, and when you couple a naturally glacial process with an impaired writing schedule well….) So yes, there is a novel in the works. Let’s just throw out that I’d like to have a completed draft by mid-2017. It’s always nice to have deadlines to miss.

Fight. I’m deeply dissatisfied with the politics of our nation. From the national level to my local Portland, Oregon. I don’t care who you voted for in 2016, the lingering result is that we have a broken system that is failing all of us, a system that is unfortunately susceptible to foreign influence and extremist factions. I can’t believe that we’re so far apart from one another. That said, some things—oh like Nazism, racism, sexism—are wrong, and we live in an age when they should not be tolerated. At all. So...we fight.

How about you? What resolutions are you considering?

Faithfulness

Maria Popva’s fantastic website Brain Pickings culls her myriad obsessions (literary, artistic, aural, spiritual, etc.) into a constant flow of enlightening posts.

Her piece on Parker Palmer’s recent Naropa University address showcases what makes Popova’s blog a must-read: she channels a nearly obscure current of would-be internet ephemera and siphons it in order to pique our own obsessiveness.

I had been ignorant of Palmer’s work, although I realize I heard him on an On Being podcast without having connected name to message. But given that the theme of this blog--Begin Again--is the overlap between the persistent and repetitive cycles of both artistic and spiritual work (the same but different and both as mundane as they are mysterious), the themes of his teachings are necessary to echo here.

Specifically, what struck a chord is Parker’s talking-point about parsing the difference between the ‘effectiveness’ of taking on the necessary and nagging tasks of our lives (those nefarious but essential to-do lists) and the overarching passion projects that inspire and drive what we often consider our ‘true’ work. While acknowledging that managing tasks effectively gets us short-term results, we also must return to and attend to those grander notions of what Parker refers to as faithfulness:

‘…(being) faithful to your calling, and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care.’

Surveying where I am right now, I have been emphasizing my day-job, which at present is a wild ride of travel-intensive IT project work and the constructing—along with my colleagues—of a business. It’s obvious why my focus is here now: the job pays, and it provides, and frankly, it’s fun, exciting, risky, scary. Creativity comes into play quite a lot in my day-to-day – much more than I would have guessed.

Still.

Lately I’ve been more effective than I have been faithful; or more accurately, I’m more aware of being effective and less aware of being faithful. And when I am aware of being faithful, I’m faithful in unexpected ways. Where I once relied on being myopically faithful to my artistic pursuits, I’m now spreading that faithfulness to my relationships, to my health, to my spiritual work, and, as noted above, even to my day job.

As Popova’s recap of Palmer’s address underscores, it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in living a paradox: we know less and are less certain the longer we live. 

Change That Mind

People don’t change.

I’ve written that and said that and part of me believes that. Most days, I’m convinced that we all have pre-established modes of being and cemented behaviors that have gradations, perhaps, but states that are largely unalterable.

The term ‘fixed mindset,’ as identified by Psychology and motivation researcher Carol Dweck, betrays an effortless set-point of the kind I’m (mostly) convinced we’re all slaves to, a staid default where the mind’s ability to manage its approach to the world’s many challenges settles into an immoveable monolith reinforced by those cross-sections of ego-rebar.

By contrast possessing a ‘growth mindset’ where we instead maintain a flexible mental position, where we work toward our life goals, where we assess and address issues, problems, situations as they reveal themselves to us in the present, requires that we maintain and sustain a vulnerable, open, and flexible belief in ourselves. Just because we don’t innately exhibit certain skills, doesn’t mean we can’t learn those skills through diligent practice.

According to Dweck’s website, maintaining a ‘growth mindset’ translates into focusing on the effort we put into an endeavor rather than the label we assign to ourselves.

Being vulnerable and open requires that we unmoor ourselves from the words and behaviors that typically defines us as the people we believe ourselves to be. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, sometimes despairingly so, where everything feels transient, slippery, illusory. The Buddhists would say that this is acknowledging Reality. The Reality that the supposed solidity of our existence is nothing but constant flux. But if we can’t rely on the labels and the beliefs we—as well as the people around us—have of us, how are we supposed to recognize ourselves?

About sixth months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a company for which I’d worked for twelve years. It wasn’t that I didn't want to leave; I ached for change. The respect and appreciation for how I fulfilled my role within the business had evaporated, the relationship with my managers had stagnated for reasons that still feel nebulous and haphazard, and in practical terms they weren’t taking care of me financially, which was having disastrous effects on my family’s finances. I had to act.

Even so, the decision to openly embrace uncertainty, to actively unattach myself from everything I knew or conceived of myself was difficult and frightening.

We often don’t appreciate how important our day-jobs are. These roles provide us with stability, a sense of purpose, maybe even meaning. They also often provide us with drama, interpersonal connection and the subsequent conflict. Our occupations are as integral to our comfort as they are to imprisoning us into believing that life is full of 8-5, Monday through Friday constancy.

We can so easily believe that we are our jobs.

In my former work situation, we were all as hemmed in by labels and expectations as by Reality. Although I put considerable effort into learning new skills, into taking on more than I’d ever done before, my managers were so used to seeing me a certain way, so used to me fitting into the confining role I’d had for years, they didn’t recognize or acknowledge what I’d done. They couldn’t. I, however, knew I was capable of more; I’d proven it to myself, and this gave me the confidence to look for work elsewhere. I had to quit in order to redefine myself, and I was and am fortunate that an opportunity presented itself when it did.

The most startling aspect of it all was how easy it was to let twelve years of ego-investment and self-definition fall away. Once I stopped putting my energy into the same old labels and roles and circular thinking that I was used to (and, let’s face it, addicted to) those labels and roles could no longer contain me.

I suppose, then, that my experience betrays what I actually believe about our potential to learn new skills or to behave differently.