Tag Archives: Know Thyself

Write Thyself

The Diaries of Samuel Pepys

The Diaries of Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703 (whabooks.com)

Journaling for Health and Well-Being

Try journaling for a healthy mind. Thirty years of research has consistently weighed in on journaling’s mental-health benefits.

In her book A Course in Weight Loss: 21 Spiritual Lessons for Surrendering Your Weight ForeverMarianne Williamson writes that

…journaling is… a tool for cultivating your highest self, as applied not only to weight but to any area of your life. Journaling is a way you listen to yourself, by making it clear to yourself what you actually think and feel. The more room you give yourself to express your true thoughts and feelings, the more room there is for your wisdom to emerge. In listening to yourself, you learn from yourself. In listening deeply to the voice of your heart, you reestablish relationship with your true self, so long denied.
oprah.com

3-piece natural linen-cotton summer outfit in pale yellow on ebay. Sale ends at about midnight Wednesday 9/19. Only one bid, $2.95. Bid now!

3-piece natural linen-cotton summer outfit in pale yellow on eBay. Sale ends at about midnight Wednesday 9/19. Click on photo to view. Only one bid, $2.95. Bid now!

Writing about your feelings demystifies them, keeps them from rolling around and around in your head without arriving anywhere, and gives you a little distance from them. It helps you remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR FEELINGS. Your higher, purer self is the “you” that God created, and it is that self whose voice provides such honest clarity when you’re journaling.

Occasionally, when I am journaling, my writing  segués into an intimacy with God that is tantamount to prayer.

Dreams, Emotions, Gratitude

Dream of Pope Sergius —Rogier van der Weyden

Dream of Pope Sergius —Rogier van der Weyden

DREAMS

My practice – which is by no means the only or the best way to go about journaling, and which is therefore continually subject to change— is to sit down at the computer first thing in the morning, every morning (or so… give or take… usually; quite often, sometimes); open my journal document; and set down anything I can remember about my dreams.

According to the Dreams Foundation (www.dreams.ca), dreams “offer a private means to explore inner reality and to gain unique, undeniable, personal experiences.” In addition, “there is overwhelming evidence that [dreams]… can be used to improve waking life,… [offering] opportunities for fun, adventure, wish fulfillment, creativity, deep personal insight and healing, and all this at no cost and with no line-ups!”

Check out the Dreams Foundation website for more information and dream exercises.

SACRED THREADS LONG LUSCIOUS DRESS SIZE M/L TROPICAL PINK, ORANGE DRAPEY SHEER

SACRED THREADS LONG, LUSCIOUS, FANCY DRESS SIZE M/L comes with 2 shawls. Dress is new, never worn, < $28 including shipping. ENDS NOON THURSDAY, 9/20. Buy it now!

CONCERNS, WORRIES, EMOTIONS

After recording the snips of dream I can recall, I write for circa ten minutes about whatever’s bothering me. If I’m thoroughly and completely happy, I express my joy instead… but usually there’s at least one little weed I can nip in the bud. (Do weeds have buds?)

When I was working as the “marketing person” – we didn’t have titles – at an architecture firm, I shared an office with the “graphic-design person,” a real sweetheart who was younger than my youngest child and whose name was David. He was a wizard at design but he didn’t have a lot of experience in marketing or in the special skill of promotional writing – the text for print ads, proposals, reports, and so forth.

My job had recently been created. The employees weren’t used to working with me, so when they wanted ads, media releases, and other marketing services, they strode right past my desk to David’s, whereupon David graciously suggested that they talk with me about the concept and the copy before getting David involved in the design.

David and I worked beautifully together and did a lot of spectacular and effective work, and in due time the satisfied employees returned to our office, walked past me, clapped David on the back, and said, “Great work, Champ,” or words to that effect. It made me crazy, no matter how often I reminded myself that there were people in the world with real problems, matters of life and death, conditions such as famine and epidemics run amok.

So I was both annoyed about being overlooked and ashamed of myself for being annoyed about such a petty grievance. Journaling helped me (a) realize that I had a legitimate concern, and (b) come up with a solution. Here’s a journal excerpt (me talking to me):

Bill Brown did it again — gave the assignment to David, then came to me as David suggested. I reminded BB of the “usual process.” We worked out the ad concept, Bill approved the text, David assembled the ad, and it was perfect – right on the money. And then, as predictably as the night follows the day, BB took David out to lunch, that’s how grateful he was for “a job well done.” I was so furious and so hurt [at being ignored, excluded], I came close to quitting on the spot.

Why were you furious and hurt?

Because I’m at least 50% responsible for the success of the ad, and I want to be given credit where credit is due.

Why? What difference does it make as long as the work is done well?

Because it feels bad to be ignored or overlooked and it feels good to get strokes for good work.

Why?

Because it feels good to feel good.

Right, uh-huh. But why do you need the strokes to feel good?

Well, two reasons. First, it reassures me that I really am doing good work. Second, we waste time and lose opportunities. If people came straight to me, we could develop the concept and see if the ad fits in with other marketing the firm is doing or consider supporting the ad in other media.

Why do you want reassurance about your work?

AFTER A FEW MORE questions and answers, it became clear (a) that I was confident about my work and was, in fact, getting positive feedback from David and from my supervisor; and (b) that better coordination — achieved by making me the designated go-to person for marketing and promotion — would probably improve marketing effectiveness and would save resources. A little research confirmed “assumption b,” which became the basis of the proposal I developed and took to my supervisor for discussion, which in turn brought about a well-justified policy change.

JOURNALING FOR GRATITUDE

To educate yourself for the feeling of gratitude means to take nothing for granted, but to always seek out and value the kindness that will stand behind the action. Nothing that is done for you is a matter of course. Everything originates in a will for the good, which is directed at you. Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude.
— Albert Schweitzer

An article on the UMass/Dartmouth website, “The Importance of Gratitude,” offers evidence that feeling grateful is good for your health. Researchers such as Martin Seligman, Robert Emmons, and Michael McCullough are turning their attention to the study of gratitude and its relationship to health and mental well-being. Among other findings, they’ve shown that

  • People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercise more regularly, have fewer adverse physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and feel more optimistic about the coming week….
  • Daily discussion of gratitude seems to correlate with lower levels of stress and depression, and higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, energy, and sleep duration and quality.
  • People who think about, talk about, or write about gratitude daily are more likely to have helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support.
  • Those inclined toward gratitude are less concerned about material goods, are less likely to judge their own or others’ success in terms of wealth, are less envious of wealthy people, and are more likely to share their possessions with others.
  • Daily gratitude practices may help prevent coronary artery disease.

BY THE BY…

Wayne Dyer is quoted on mindbodygreen.com as follows:

Be in a state of gratitude for everything that shows up in your life. Be thankful for the storms as well as the smooth sailing. What is the lesson or gift in what you are experiencing right now? Find your joy not in what’s missing in your life but in how you can serve.

If I were Dr. Dyer’s editor, I would argue strenuously for “Be grateful for…” in place of “Be in a state of gratitude for….” Do you agree? Why or why not? (Explain your answer below. It will not count toward your final grade.)

And Then We Shall Return

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Assignment 37.1

Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Sestina Time

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 … 

goldharvest_okWe’re almost done! This is the final assignment for Chapter 11, and Chapter 12 will be the last chapter.

I recently wrote a sestina for a poetry contest. I thought, why should I have to suffer alone? So I am asking you to write a sestina as well.

It’s a rather demanding form, but it’s a very good exercise for “writing poetry and living poetically,” because, while your left brain is busy putting the puzzle pieces together, your creative, intuitive right brain remains free to romp and frisk.

Harvest moon

Harvest moon

Below is Wikipedia’s definition of sestina:

sestina (also, sextinasestine, or sextain) is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; if we number the first stanza’s lines 123456, then the words ending the second stanza’s lines appear in the order 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531. This organization is referred to as retrogradatio cruciata(“retrograde cross”). These six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet’s first line usually containing 1 and 2, its second 3 and 4, and its third 5 and 6 (but other versions exist, described below). English sestinas are usually written in iambic pentameter or another decasyllabic meter.Wikipedia

Let’s see if I can clarify that a bit.

  • Choose six words. We’ll call them A, B, C, D, E, and F.
  • Your sestina’s first stanza will have six lines. The first line will end with Word A, the second line will end with Word B, the third line will end with Word C, and so forth.
  • You will write five more six-line stanzas. The six lines in each stanza will also end with Word A, Word B, and so forth, but in a different order for each stanza, as specified in the pattern below.
  • The seventh stanza will have three lines. All six words will appear in these three lines, as follows: A and B in the first line, C and D in the second line, and E and F in the third line.

pumpkin_field

Here is the pattern, using the words I chose for my sestina (than, round, day, wide, great, countryside):

Stanza 1
Line 1-than (A)
Line 2-round (B)
Line 3-day (C)
Line 4-wide (D)
Line 5-great (E)
Line 6-countryside (F) 

Stanza 2
Line 7-countryside (F)
Line 8-than (A)
Line 9-great (E)
Line 10-round (B)
Line 11-wide (D)
Line 12-day (C) 

Stanza 3
Line 13-day (C)
Line 14-countryside (F)
Line 15-wide (D)
Line 16-than (A)
Line 17-round (B)
Line 18-great (E) 

Stanza 4
Line 19-great (E)
Line 20-day (C)
Line 21-round (B)
Line 22-countryside (F)
Line 23-than (A)
Line 24-wide (D) 

Stanza 5
Line 25-wide (D)
Line 26-great (E)
Line 27-than (A)
Line 28-day (C)
Line 29-countryside (F)
Line 30-round (B) 

Stanza 6
Line 31-round (B)
Line 32-wide (D)
Line 33-countryside (F)
Line 34-great (E)
Line 35-day (C)
Line 36-than (A) 

Stanza 7
Line 37-than (A), round (B)
Line 38-day (C), wide (D)
Line 39-great (E), countryside (F)

…And Then We Shall Return

Now, here is my poem:

paintbox_farmstead

Laverne and I like nothing better than
to climb the oaken steps that circle round 
and round up to the steeple; to this day
intact with bell and rope, its windows wide
and open in the summer to the great
green quilt of rolling countryside.

And in the autumn, this same countryside
is rusty red with sorghum, riper than
the melons, yellowing upon their great,
thick, ropy stems. The fruit grows round
as basketballs — not striped and lush and wide
like watermelons picked on Labor Day.

We try, Laverne and I, ‘most every day
to mount the steps and view the countryside,
horizon to horizon. On the wide,
wide world beyond, we ponder gaily then,
imagining the wonders of the round,
revolving planet: bustling cities; great

metropolises, great blue seas, and great
the mountain forests we shall see some day,
and then we shall return: The world is round,
our place in it the motley countryside,
in which our twisted roots are deeper than
the sun is high, the stormy seas are wide.

Wide seas, wide roads we do not crave, but wide
green fields of corn and wheat; and harvests, great,
sweet-scented harvests, more abundant than
the ones before. We pray for cool, dry days
so laborers can clear the countryside;
and sometimes, in the evenings, they sit ‘round

a blazing campfire, as the full, bright, round
and heavy harvest moon throws shadows, wide
as haystacks, on the now-still countryside.
Is there, in all the earth, a work as great
and satisfying as a harvest day?
Is there a job more fine and noble than

the farmer’s? More than seasons turning ‘round
the wheel, each day is new-made glory, wide
as seas, great life-bestowing countryside.

* * *

Please send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

tree_landscape_beautiful

Detour

The shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line

In the poetic life, the shortest possible distance between two points is not always a straight line

MAP LEGEND

  1. We plan to go to the Washington Monument (intended route = straight vertical line)
  2. Just as we are leaving, we receive emergency phone call: Grandma has fallen down the steps. We drive as quickly as possible to Grandma’s, dodging kangaroos along the route; Grandma is able to walk (a very good sign) and knows her name, what day it is, who is president of the U.S., etc.
  3. We take her to see Dr. Checkerout, who says that Grandma is hale and hardy and that the very best remedy for the small laceration on her left nostril (splinter on steps) would be to spend the day at the Washington Monument (Is that a coincidence, or WHAT?)
  4. We drive back to Grandma’s so that she can get her hat and camera and put on her walking shoes, and we set out again for the Washington Monument

  5. Oh, no! There is road construction in the vicinity of the Washington Monument; we must detour via Bermuda
  6. Well, since we have to go there anyway, we enjoy the sun and the surf in Bermuda, along with numerous tropical drinks containing rum; Grandma is sloshed, so we check in to a hotel
  7. We resume our trip to the Washington Monument the next morning, arriving without incident and having a wonderful time

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course
Lesson 34
Dealing Poetically with Adversity

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

roadsign_kangaroo2 

The poetic life is nothing if not flexible.

In the above diagram, the shortest distance (as the crow flies) from our house (upper left) and the Washington Monument is represented by a vertical arrow. Once we had learned of Grandma’s accident, however, it was not possible for us to take that route, poetically speaking. The shortest distance had become much longer. If you are going to live poetically, you need to use mystic math.

Mystic Math

(The Truth Is in the Poetry)

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door....

Is it so foolish to deny that 2
plus 2 must always equal 4? Because

one thinks immediately of Julio

and Jeanne next door, with twins, Celine and

quiet Jim — not counting Thor, the sheltie,

they are four indeed — but one in the

directory, one phone, one family,

one house, one home.

 

How many syllables comprise a poem?

How many deities are in the Trinity?

How many personalities have you, or I

(not in the psychopathic sense, of course,

although one wouldn’t know, would one, if there

were moments unaccounted for — so many

billion galaxies to travel in for

one a bit unraveled)?

 

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

And then there is the Christian marriage

ceremony, wherein 1 plus 1 make 1,

and during which the wedding guests affirm

that all are one in Christ.

 

One day, one night, together, they become —

a day. Once more, the sum of 1 plus 1

is 1, at least within the limits of

the English language — its vocabulary

vast, indeed, although, alas, not infinite.

 

fiddlepm_chair_istockAnd think of all those violins, violas,

cellos, basses, trumpets, clarinets,

trombones, and horns and cymbals, harps

and bells and such — and all the men and

women, dignified in black and white,

with all their individual concerns —

one widowed just a year ago tonight,

another six years clean and sober; to

her left, an oboist whose brother was

indicted yesterday for tax evasion; on

her right, a Pakistani having such

a frightful allergy attack — and the

conductor, who has just received a check

for twenty thousand dollars from the lottery—

but now she raises her baton — and

in that instant of anticipation, in

that sacred, silent metamorphosis, how

many, would you say, have they become?

 

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Four notes — three quick, one slow — are played:

the Fifth (but first, perhaps, in pure

and simple glory) symphony of Beethoven

begins… and in the audience,

a few may fidget, measuring

the minutes and intending to

retreat at intermission. Violinists

count the silent beats of idleness

between their passages, but, I imagine,

seldom ask themselves how many

notes they play in all, and just

as well, it wouldn’t change a thing. Do you

suppose there’s someone who, for fun

or scholarship, attempts to number all

the microbes in the hall, and further,

calculates the ratio of respirations that

occur between the second movement and

the third? For to be sure, it could

be quantified somewhere by some technology

or other. Fortunately, no one cares.

And that’s the point. They came, you see, to hear

the symphony.

 

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

Therefore, you’ll get no argument from me that 2 plus 2 are 4, not 3 or 17
or 20, but in turn you must forgive
the solecism I commit, suggesting there’s
a truer truth than anything that can
be proven by addition — if it were
not so, than why would anybody bother?
What would be the joy of noticing
this pattern or that symmetry? Do we
pursue a proof because the numerals
insist on our attention? I am sure
the stars care nothing of our counting
them or our refraining from it. Finding
order in the universe, or else
imposing it, or otherwise competing
in a race with chaos, really has a single
benefit — it satisfies, however
temporarily, the spirit, and
the truth, you find, is in the poetry,
not in the paper that it’s written on
or in the composition of the particles
that dart about at rates astonishingly
great — as we believe, for so the eye
of science witnesses, and since we give
it credibility, we cannot disagree.
 

...viruses or other microscopic entities....

...viruses and other microscopic entities....

It pleases us to cede authority

to science, even though we never see

the viruses and other microscopic

entities; but science offers remedies

for every manner of disease and warns

that to release a sneeze uncovered will

unleash a tyranny of demons; so

it seems, in our experience, and is

esteemed as fact, no longer theory…

because it matters. That’s the only

reason — saves a life, perhaps, or

fifty million. If the latter, is the

scientific effort fifty million times

more worthy? I don’t know.

You do the math.

 

by Sister Alma Rose

February 2006

“Galaxies,”  “tulips,” and “stars” images © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

 tulips_magentas

The Ashley Incident

My son Jack and daughter-in-law Ashley live next door with their children, one of whom is Little Jack, who is almost a year old.

Computerized tomography (CT) scanner
Computerized tomography (CT) scanner

Last Sunday, I got a 7 a.m. phone call from Ashley. She was obviously in huge pain. I told her to go immediately to the hospital, where the emergency-room personnel discovered via numerous expensive high-tech methodologies that she was hemorrhaging, which I could have told them without the machines and the expense. After about six hours spent groaning in agony, Ashley was rushed to the operating room for exploratory surgery, anesthetized, split open like a salmon, and relieved of a couple of pints of blood and a ruptured ovarian cyst.

i-40_map
Red line = I-40

They sent her home on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after the surgery, with an incision the length of Interstate 40 and instructions not to lift the baby or any other heavy object for two weeks. This was one of those unfunded mandates doctors and hospitals are so fond of issuing, because of course they did not send Mary Poppins or Mr. T  home with Ashley.

“How,” I asked myself, “would a Person Living Poetically respond to Ashley’s dilemma?” This was not an idle question, because I tend to feel that I am to blame for everything, including World Hunger, and that everything is therefore my responsibility. I am a pathological People-Pleaser, and my default definition of myself (CONtentwise) is “one who ties up all the loose ends in the universe.”

As it happens, I had a lot to do this week, and Ashley’s plight arose at a very inconvenient time for me. I had deadlines to meet and telephone interviews to conduct and no clean underwear.

...telephone interviews to conduct...
…telephone interviews to conduct…

Theoretically, it would have been possible for me to keep to my schedule, just as it would have been possible for the Washington Monument–bound family to call 9-1-1 for Granny and go on its merry way. But if one has decided to live poetically, such choices are no longer simple. Another possibility would have been to help Ashley and grouse about it continually, moaning and groaning every time I had to carry little Jack from one room to another or, worse yet, up a flight of stairs, which I did, several times, moaning and groaning shamelessly because, after all, I didn’t drop him, so I attained the victory only slightly tarnished.

Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)
Aleutian Islands (triangles = active volcanoes)

Fortunately, I had done the decluttering exercise in Lesson 5.1 and I had finished the personal inventory assigned in Lesson 13, so I wasn’t being a knee-jerk do-gooder when I decided to devote as much time as was needed to Ashley for as long as she needed it. Using the Golden Rule, it turns out, is a pretty good way of making decisions much of the time, and what I would want Others to Do unto Me, if I had just lost 25 percent or so of my blood supply and had major abdominal surgery and if I were lurching around due to the pain of an incision that looked like the Aleutian Islands, is, I would want Others to cater to my every whim and relieve me of all responsibility for babies, diapers, six-year-olds, meals, and the like.

Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)
Finnish macaroni casserole (photo by Suvi Korhonen)

So that is what I have been doing instead of attending to my blogs and my deadlines and my laundry. That, and accepting with gratitude the various casseroles and salads and desserts supplied by the Church Ladies, because that is what Church Ladies DO, just as helping one’s grown children when they are in need through no fault of their own (as opposed to being in need because they have screwed up Big Time) is what I do, when I am living poetically. 

Assignment 34.1

  1. Identify as many poetic devices as you can in “Mystic Math,” above.
  2. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  3. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.  

* * *

 

Spare No Sibilants

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 31

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 4: Poetry-Writing as Meditation

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1  

girl_art_project

The creative arts are the playground for recognizing and understanding our purpose in being here. When we truly allow our spirits to be filled with the purpose, our minds can begin to take stock of the necessary steps and needed materials so the body can become the mover or manifestor of the desire. Mind, Body, Spirit: Connecting With Your Creative Self,
by Mary Braheny and Diane Halperin

* * *

I wrote both of the poems below “meditatively” — that is, with an open mind, as part of a morning ritual.

The first poem originated from my noticing that at this time of year, the earth’s orientation to the sun is such that the rays slant more brightly and beautifully through my bedroom windows than in any other season.  I have said before that I live in a church basement, though that’s not quite accurate. Half of my apartment is below ground level. The windows — there are four, all on the south side — are full sized, made possible by window wells.

In meditative poems I try not to be intentional. I work with the poetic conventions I choose and let the tale tell itself. In this case, I chose the following:

There are other common rhetorical devices as well. (1) How many can you identify? (Please name the ones you find.)

The poem was going to be a meditation on a ray of light, but it turned into something quite different. (2) What might it have told me about myself that I hadn’t been aware of?

1. WHIMSY ON WELCOMING WINDOWS IN WINTER

My walkdown is half below ground and thus darkish
with windows on only one side, and these mullioned
and frosted and dusty, gray-tinted with shadows
from brickwork and privet… and silent, so quiet
that lightning and thunder at midnight can’t penetrate;
but, more’s the pity, I can’t discern birdsong;
cicadas lamenting and crickets scritch-scritching,
however, are easily heard in midsummer.
I once had a fright from a possum who tumbled,
at least I inferred that she had, to the floor of
the window-well; captive, she skittered around on
the old metal screens; and I, thinking the threat must
be human, in fear and confusion, punched in nine-
one-one on the phone, and no fewer than two dozen
uniformed men armed with pistols came quickly
to rescue a woman alone in her bedroom,
defending her person from one hapless menacing
possum. The men with the guns were forgiving,
and, surely, one had to do something, not knowing
the danger. I do love a window that faces
the south in the wintertime, feral four-footed
invaders, indeed, notwithstanding; for sunlight
slants through in a comforting, angular way that
is perfectly suited for afternoon naps and
geraniums, too.

January 18, 2009

restored_winter_garden_2002_ground0

The inspiration for the following poem was the much-embellished language of Elizabeth Peters’s delightful Victorian archaeologist and detective Amelia Peabody Emerson. Peters has written a few dozen books about the Emersons, all narrated (for the most part) by Amelia, whose husband refers to her affectionately as “Peabody.” There is an unrestraint about her utterances (as there is, as well, about Victorian houses, furniture, and other artistic expressions) that is greatly at odds with the more modern, pared-down prose of later writers. If something can be clearly expressed using five words, Amelia will use fifteen.

tomb234There is, I am overjoyed to find, a new book in the series: Tomb of the Golden Bird (Amelia Peabody Mysteries).

Again, the poem wandered into uncharted territory. (3) What do you think I learned about myself in the process of writing this poem? (HINT: There are no wrong answers.) 

2. LIBERTINE (AMELIA)

 “They will rid us of resident

     “rodents,” said Amelia Peabody —

Oh, what a droll redundancy

     Of D’s and R’s and S’s.

Amelia is generous with consonants

     and commas and asides,

     not sparing

     an embarrassment of prepositions

     or extravagant Egyptian

     nomenclature.

Ah, to scatter syllables

     with no fear of reprisal,

Scribbling whatever adjectives

     arise, page upon page,

To be intemperate at last

     and feel the weight of pent-up participles

     lifted from one’s shoulders,

     nobly carried, one might add,

     despite the rain.

Now to feast upon the delicate,

     the succulent, the opulent

     accessories, plucked in

     leaner days from one’s

     repast, but frozen — for

     one knew their banishment

     would end at last.

Economy, begone! Pack your

     valise and abdicate

     your stern and pious reign.

Don’t slam the door when you

     egress. Expect no severance pay,

     for you’ve exacted

     more than you were owed.

And now, a toast, companions

     in the liberation, mes amis.

Now lift your flagons, lift them high,

     and drink to whimsy, arrogant,

     peculiar, wry, benevolent.

Drink to liberty

     in flowing crimson silk

     arrayed; Amelia Peabody has

     gained the citadel, and

     holds aloft the flame.

O, wasted wealth of words, O, damned

     display of Latin origins.

O, Norse and Arabic, O, Gaelic,

     Greek and Cherokee, and more;

Ye assonant ambassadors, rejoice!

Amelia has restored

     your scattered fortunes.

Spare no sibilants;

     there shall be subsurrations,

     seventy times seven, and

     a score besides.

Throw wide the gates for

     summer’s retinue,

     ripe pomegranate.

Go and populate the periodicals, reclaim

     the islands where verbosity

     has honor still.

Amelia has gained the citadel,

     and yet, take care that your extravagance

     is eloquent, laid on with artistry. For as

     “the tombs themselves descend in

     “sinuous curves,”

Endeavor to deserve, when you are

     gone, an orderly effusion

     in the manner you (yourself)

     displayed.

Immerse yourself in immortality.

     Immerse yourself COMPLETELY,

     like Amelia,

Who bathes and then adjourns to the

     verandah,

Where breezes ruffle Nefret’s hair

     that shimmers in the light like

     golden threads.

 

February 2006

peabody

Assignment 31.1

  1. Answer the questions highlighted above in red.
  2. Write a meditative poem in blank verse using iambic or trochaic tetrameter. Your poem should have no more than twenty lines. BEGIN WITH A MINIMALIST, CONCRETE SUBJECT, AND DO NOT WRITE OVERTLY ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS.
  3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
  4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.

* * *

What Meditation Feels Like

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 29

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 2: Simple Meditation

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

Before you can learn to practice poetry-writing as meditation, you need to know what meditation feels like. You need to practice letting go of your props and your crutches and your manners and your disguises and to discover that at your core — within your soul — you are already perfect. Insofar as meditation can be said to have a goal, it is complete acceptance of your “true” self and your present circumstances.

Through meditation you are, in a sense, born again every time you choose to be. Let go of the past, let go of the future. Give them to the Almighty. Everything is Right Here, Right Now, and it’s all okay, it’s all fine, because it’s the only way it can be, right here, right now.

Begin meditation at whatever pace suits you: one minute, several times a day; a half-hour, twice a day; whenever you can steal some time away from the hubbub and find a comfortable, quiet place.

Some meditation instructors will tell you to take a shower or a bath first, to clean up your mess, to create a “special” place for meditation, to sit in a certain way, and to not fall asleep. These suggestions might work well for you. In my case, they make meditation a chore, just another project, like going to the gym, rather than a way of life, a way of being. If I followed all the rules, I’d meditate maybe every third leap year. As it happens, I can meditate on a city bus during rush hour.

Meditation step by step

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

Start with a simple “sitting” or “breathing meditation.” This is as basic as it gets — breathing.

  • Get as comfortable as possible, in as quiet a place as possible. If you can get comfortable sitting with your back straight on a pillow on the floor, or on a chair, not slouching, with your head tilted slightly down and your feet planted firmly on the floor — great! If you want to lie down, for Dirty Gertie’s sake lie down.
  • Relax. Just saying the word relax to yourself is immensely powerful.
  • Close your eyes. Don’t scrunch them closed — just an easy-and-relaxed closed.
  • Inhale and exhale through your nose, comfortably, rhythmically.
  • Breathe from your diaphragm (or abdomen), so that your in-breaths are deep and lung-filling. Abdominal breathing is, in itself, relaxing. (If you can’t get the hang of it, place your hand flat across your navel and inhale so that your hand moves outward.)
  • Mentally place yourself in a sort of porous cocoon of pure white light. You can think of it as your “energy field.” I see it as God’s loving, healing light. Breathe in the light.
  • The more senses you engage during your meditation, the less likely it is that you will get distracted. See the healing light being inhaled. When you exhale, feel the healing light permeate your body with warmth, like a caress: to the tips of your fingers and toes and the top of your head; through your skin, muscle, bone, all the way to your internal organs and every cell in your body.* Smell and taste the light. Hear the ebb and flow of your breath, like an ocean tide.
  • If you can’t manage all that, just let your attention rest on your rhythmic breathing.
  • Don’t worry if your mind wanders. If a thought or a feeling intrudes, notice it, but don’t follow it. Jack Kornfield suggests you bow to it. If you do get tangled up in thoughts and emotions, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. As Susan Piver says, it doesn’t matter if it’s been ten seconds or an hour. Don’t beat yourself up. Show lovingkindness to yourself. Do not get discouraged. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche reassures us that “the intention to meditate” is enough. If you genuinely intend to meditate, you can’t mess it up.

    Susan Piver

    Susan Piver

  • If you are distracted by pain or discomfort, let it be, for a time, the focus of your meditation. Take your attention away from your breathing and settle it on your pain. Alternate between focusing on your breath and on your pain. Don’t be surprised if the pain disappears.
  • Meditating ten to twenty minutes at a time, twice a day, is a good guideline. Start by meditating for a few minutes every day. Set a timer, if you want to. Gradually, steadily, add to your time a bit, or to the number of times you meditate per day. But if a week goes by, or a month, without your meditating, you haven’t failed. Just start again. You get an eternity of second chances.

    Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

    Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

In a nutshell

  • Get comfortable and close your eyes. Relax.
  • Rest your attention on the sensations of comfortable, rhythmic breathing, from the diaphragm, in and out through the nose.
  • If thoughts or emotions break in, notice them but try not to follow them. (I think of this process as a scuba diver’s watching through goggles as fish swim in and out of view.)
  • As soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, gently, lovingly bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • Always, in meditation, treat yourself with love and gentleness. When you are through meditating, the lovingkindness will remain, and you’ll be kinder to yourself and others.

Other ways to start meditating

__________

* Warming your fingers and toes is actually a common form of do-it-yourself biofeedback for relaxation. Use an instant-read thermometer or an old-fashioned mercury thermometer. Hold it between your fingers for a while, until it reaches your body temperature. (An instant-read thermometer will do so immediately.) Then focus your attention on the fingers holding the thermometer. You can try to warm your fingertips, or you can just “notice” them. Either should do the trick. You’ll feel a tingling in your fingers—that’s the blood flowing in. The temperature recorded on the thermometer will rise.

When you’re stressed, your system goes into “fight or flight” mode and the blood rushes to your heart. By consciously directing the blood away from your heart, toward your extremities, the heart slows down and you’ll relax.

Adapted from Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word

Assignment 29.1

Continue with your meditation journal. Send your new journal entries via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

You’ll also find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net.

* * *

‘That Unique Essence’

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 13

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 4: Growth and Self-Knowledge

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the… mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding…. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. -Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living

What we truly are, objectively, is that unique essence that distinguishes us from one another. It equips us to reveal some special piece of cosmic truth to which the essential uniqueness of other individuals is less favorably attuned. But, in our alienation from essence, what we lack is the compellingly direct experience and cognition of the astounding fact that our body, in its entirety, is intelligence—Mind. –David S. Devor, “Intuition, Creativity, Mind & Matter,” http://www.projectmind.org/intuition.html, accessed September 3, 2008

 A Work in Progress 

We have already seen that it is impossible for me to know myself empirically, because

A Work in Progress

A Work in Progress

1. The self is never static (so my sense of self must be fluid).

2. I can’t be both Observer and Observee at the same time. To separate into Observer and Observee is to no longer be a unified, distinct self. (When I look into a mirror, I don’t see my self; I see a two-dimensional representation of my physical body.)

3. Since I can’t get outside myself, I must depend partially on what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me for my own self-knowledge. No two people perceive me in the same way. Obviously, I value some people’s opinions more than others’.

4. Parts of my psyche are floating around outside me, taking cover inside me, and latent, waiting to evolve when I am stretched and challenged.

Knowing oneself will always be a work in progress, but it is essential to keep at it if we are to have any peace, any joy, any sanity. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is just a tiny sample of the thousands of “know thyself” maxims that exist:

  • Jesus said…, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” —from the Gospel of Thomas

    J. Krishnamurti

    J. Krishnamurti

  • Through self-knowledge you begin to find out what is God, what is truth, what is that state which is timeless. Your teacher may pass on to you the knowledge which he received from his teacher, and you may do well in your examinations, get a degree and all the rest of it; but, without knowing yourself as you know your own face in the mirror, all other knowledge has very little meaning. Learned people who don’t know themselves are really unintelligent; they don’t know what thinking is, what life is. That is why it is important for the educator to be educated in the true sense of the word, which means that he must know the workings of his own mind and heart, see himself exactly as he is in the mirror of relationship. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. In self-knowledge is the whole universe; it embraces all the struggles of humanity. -J. Krishanmurti
  • Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
    The proper study of Mankind is Man. -Alexander Pope
  • I must first know myself…. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. -Plato
  • The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge. -Richard of Saint-Victor  (1)
  • If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful…. -Aldous Huxley
  • How little do we know that which we are! How less what we may be! -Lord Byron
  • It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. -Lao-Tzu

George Gordon, Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron
  • The best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbor is to know ourselves. -Walter Lippmann
  • All men have the capacity of knowing themselves and acting with moderation. -Heraclitus
  • We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. Ursula K. Le Guin (2)
  • Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat. –Sun-Tzu
  • The most successful people are those who don’t have any illusions about who they are. They know themselves well and they can move in the direction of their best talents. -Bud Bray, quoted in Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? (3)
  • Meditation… is the way to know the self that resides just below the surface, a surface that is usually choppy with likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, and judgments of all sorts. This amalgam of thought and emotion is who we think we are, but we are wrong. Who we are is far more interesting, exciting, and powerful than this. Who we are is fearless, joyful, and extremely kind. -Susan Piver (4)

You are not your thoughts and feelings 

Laozi (Lao-Tzu), depicted as the Taoist god

Laozi (Lao-Tzu), depicted as the Taoist god

A working knowledge of myself is essential for day-to-day existence. I can, without understanding every facet of myself at every moment, have a pretty good idea of my strengths and my weaknesses. I can “be in touch with my feelings.” I can know my limitations and decide whether to tackle them or navigate around them. I can develop relationships with people I trust—people who will help me determine whether my perceptions are accurate or I am living in La-La-Land. I can avoid the traps that snare me if I get too close.

I can know what is not me. Teachers of meditation say, “Observe your thoughts and feelings, but know that you are not your thoughts and feelings.” My identity or self is not simply the sum of my roles: mother, sister, friend, writer, churchgoer, meditator, teacher, Anglo American, dancer, singer, and so forth. This is good news. If I identify too closely with any role, then, on the day I’m performing well, I like myself and I feel good, and on an off day I despise myself and I am miserable.

So where to begin?

Let’s go back to a few of the principles we established earlier:

  • Everybody wants to be happy.
  • Babies are born expecting happiness. At birth, their wants and their needs are virtually identical, but they (wants and needs) soon diverge.
  • As we interact with more and more people who are Not Us, we learn adaptive behaviors. Some are healthy, such as compromising without giving our selves away. Some are unhealthy, such as lying and manipulating for short-term gain.
  • We are often mistaken about what would make us happy. Learning what makes us genuinely and lastingly happy is called “maturing,” and it usually involves balancing our immediate wants and needs with our dreams, goals, and anticipated long-term needs. It’s the same kind of balancing you do when you’re in your thirties, say, and putting aside money for retirement, enough but not too much for present needs and generosity.

Happiness ≠ cake batter

When I was, oh, maybe four years old, my mother left a bowl of cake batter unattended on the kitchen counter while she took a long-distance phone call from her dad in Des Moines. Long-distance phone calls were a big deal back then. (5)

My mother should have known better. I loved nothing more than cake batter. I wanted to be happy. Surely eating some cake batter would make me happy.

I ate every atom of that cake batter. I was very ill afterward, plus I had to endure my mother’s anger and my father’s grave disappointment, which was even worse than being yelled at by Mom. 

I had been given a lesson in enlightened self-interest, which often requires delaying gratification. These lessons are learned first-hand-by suffering the painful consequences of immature, uninformed decisions—as well as by watching others (older siblings, perhaps) suffer them and, less often than we might like, by listening, reading, and observing the world at large.

Learning about ourselves is a process of testing our inclinations—which must never be discounted—against their short- and long-term consequences. Creating (or co-creating) ourselves involves growing in the directions that (a) satisfy our inclinations—wants and needs—and (b) have acceptable short-term outcomes and beneficial long-term consequences.

Build on Your Strengths

Build on Your Strengths

Employers are finding that organizational success is more a matter of building on employees’ strengths rather than trying to improve their weaknesses. It’s about time. Unaccountably, American companies throughout the twentieth century typically promoted their strongest sales personnel into management, seemingly unaware that great salespeople are cut from different cloth than great managers.

The Gallup organization administers a comprehensive test of employee strengths, which are ranked from first to thirty-second. My opinion, which the Gallup folks unwisely didn’t ask for, is that what you get with a single assessment is more of a snapshot than a portrait. Even so, the employers I’ve talked to say it’s a great help in assembling work groups so that you have at least one Organizer, one Learner, one Bulldozer, (6) and one Creative Person, and not a bunch of Peacemakers who tiptoe around trying not to hurt each other’s feelings and don’t accomplish anything.

I agree that it’s important to know your limitations and not knock yourself out trying to excel in something that (a) you don’t particularly enjoy and (b) you’re not well equipped for. This is why I’ve never tried out for the NFL.

A. Becoming a Better Teacher? Yes

I have a lot of knowledge about and experience with writing, but at one time I was uncomfortable in front of an audience and I did a poor job conveying my knowledge. I chose to improve my public-speaking skills because I sensed that it would be tremendous fun to teach and that there were specific steps I could take to become good at it.

B. Becoming a Better Salesman? No

I have an aversion to selling. I’ve never been able to get past the feeling that I’m asking my prospect for a favor. I hated selling candy when I was a Camp Fire Girl, and I hated calling on prospective underwriters when I was the promotion director for a public-radio station. Try as I might, I can’t envision myself as an effective salesperson. It seems wiser on my part to let others do whatever selling is necessary in my business endeavors.

Vulnerabilities: How well do you learn from your mistakes?

Long ago I read a wonderful little bit of prose that I can’t locate today. With apologies to the author, it went something like this:

  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I don’t see it. I fall in. It is not my fault.
  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I pretend not to see it. I fall in.
  • I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I know it is there, and I try to walk around it. I fall in anyway.
  • I walk down a different street.
New York City pothole; photo by David Shankbone

New York City pothole; photo by David Shankbone

The “hole in the street” is, for example, a woman’s tendency to fall in love with men who are abusive, or needy, or dangerous. It might be a parent’s serial rescuing of an adult child who is profligate. (Dad to daughter: “Okay, I’ll lend you the money, but this is the last time.”)

Vulnerabilities are the areas in which you’re most likely to make mistakes that screw up your life; the things you do even though you know better; the way you respond when people push your hot buttons; the habit of using the same failed strategy over and over, expecting a different result.

Dr. Young, the psychiatrist who treated me so successfully in the nineteen-seventies, used to say, “Know your patterns.” My pathological “pattern,” at that time, was to “stuff” my anger and accept the blame for everything that went wrong. Many people err in the other direction: They don’t take responsibility for their mistakes and change their behavior accordingly; instead they look for someone or something else to blame. (Ideally, blame doesn’t enter the picture, and everyone focuses on what he or she can do to keep the problem from recurring.)

Vulnerabilities or patterns differ from weaknesses in that it’s not always necessary to fix your weaknesses. Having astigmatism or poor upper-body strength is a weakness. There are ways to compensate. Having asthma is a vulnerability. You can stay healthy (according to conventional western medicine) only by avoiding situations that are likely to bring on an asthma attack.

Choices create futures. Mistakes are possible only until they’re made. After that they’re the raw material of your future life. You can’t change a stupid decision, but you can use it as a basis for making smarter decisions in the future. And you can absolutely refuse to let guilt or regret drain your energy.

The only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab. Leave the wound alone; it will heal, and the scab will fall off.

Lesson 13.1: Assignment

Exercise: Personal inventory

Without getting too technical or introspective, let’s inventory ourselves. I’ll go first.

1. Things I most enjoy: Mothering. Dancing. Writing poetry, songs, fiction, and nonfiction. Singing. Teaching. Meditating. Listening to classical music, especially the larger works of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, and Renaissance choral music. Reading in bed, with a particular fondness for female British writers, from Jane Austen to Dorothy L. Sayers to Rosamund Pilcher to Philippa Gregory, and for nonfiction about spirituality (the history of Judaism is a current passion), the English language and the development of language in general, quantum physics, and history. Going to small afternoon parties. Going to my grandchildren’s performances and sports events. Going to lunch and coffee with friends and family members. Collecting antiques. Gardening. Spending time at rural retreats.

Things you most enjoy:      

      

2. Things I least enjoy: Shopping. Meetings. Making phone calls. Selling. Being in crowded places.

Things you least enjoy:      

     

3. My talents, skills, strengths: Writing almost anything. Editing garbled prose for particular audiences. (I am especially good at working with inflated academic- and corporate-speak, making it clear and comprehensible yet still “dignified” in the eyes of the intended readers.) Public speaking. Teaching, when I don’t have to maintain order (I’m not scary enough).

Your talents, skills, strengths:

     

4. My weaknesses: I am inconsistent in following up on my great ideas. I am a mediocre manager of people (I always want to be friends). I am too sedentary and too easily distracted. I have trouble keeping my environment orderly. I am impossible at setting long-term goals.

Your weaknesses:      

   

5. My dreams and ambitions: To travel the U.S.A. in a mini-motorhome. To fly an ultralight. To live for months at a time in England, Scotland, and Wales. (William F. Buckley says he always writes his books in Switzerland. I want to always write my books in a cozy cottage in Scotland.) To write, publish, and sell lots and lots of books for children and adults about all the things I am interested in, especially if research for my books requires travel to distant places that are not cold. To live in the country.

Your dreams and ambitions:

     

6. My vulnerabilities: Codependency. Procrastination. A tendency to hibernate and then wonder why I’m lonely.

Your vulnerabilities:

 

7. How I deal with my vulnerabilities: Codependency: I get professional help immediately when I feel myself being sucked into an unhealthy lopsided relationship. Procrastination: I’m better at keeping commitments to other people than at keeping commitments to myself, so I make myself accountable to someone else, often my sister, who I know will hold me to it. Hibernation: I have a group of friends who have a similar tendency to hole up, and if we don’t hear from each other at least every two weeks we do a head count. “Everybody okay?” We also have fixed times for social gatherings-birthdays and holidays, at least.

How you deal with your vulnerabilities:

     

Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. It will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.

1     I culled about half of these items from a list, published on the Internet, of quotes about self-knowledge. It seemed more efficient than reading all the books they represent. I’m always leery, however, of quoting a person I’ve never heard of. What if that person never existed? What if the compiler of the list just made up the quote and threw it in as a joke?

      Richard of Saint-Victor, a Scot by birth, did exist. He was, according to Wikipedia, a “mystical theologian” and prior of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris during the twelfth century.

2     Ursula K. Le Guin is a famous American fantasy writer – practically a household name, I’m told. Apparently my household got skipped.

3     I discovered next to nothing about Bud Bray, but I included his quote because it’s the kind of thing people are always saying in motivational speeches. It rings true and it gets people nodding in agreement.

4     How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 8

5     You never dialed long-distance phone calls yourself. You called the Operator and gave her the phone number you were calling. (All the Operators were women, and they sat on tall stools in front of huge switchboards with cords going everywhere.) You told her whether you wanted to call Person-to-Person or Station-to-Station, which was cheaper and which meant that you would talk to whoever answered the phone. Either way, after you made your request you hung up the phone and waited for the Operator to call you back. It might be a few minutes, or it might be hours, especially if you were calling Person-to-Person for Mr. Applebottom, who was an Important Executive involved in Important Meetings. But the Operator kept at it, and eventually the phone would ring and it would be the Operator saying she had your Party on the line.

6     Not all these terms are the official Gallup designations.

Next: Sprinkling Happiness Dust

 

Who Are You?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 10

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 1: Knowing Thyself in One Easy Lesson

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I am a divine idea of a loving God, created for a divine purpose, which finds its greatest satisfaction in expression of its uniqueness, in harmony with God’s other divine ideas, which make up the infinite universe. Perhaps the universe produces what is needed in every place, at every time.

All of the millions of tiny needles on a fir tree are necessary for the perfect functioning of the tree. You and I are like those needles — we are right here, right now, because the universe requires it. The difference between us and the fir tree’s needles is that we can choose (a) to follow our inclinations—doing what we love, fulfilling our destiny, and perfecting the universe — or (b) to deny our talents and be diverted from our purpose. —Anonymous

[Knowing who you are] does not even require your realization, since you already are who you are. But without realization, who you are does not shine forth into this world…. You are… like an apparently poor person who does not know he has a bank account with $100 million in it and so his wealth remains an unexpressed potential. —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)

Who am I? What am I? How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? No kidding? All that? Can I have a nap first?

These are the kinds of questions most of us ask from time to time — for example,

  • During or after a crisis
  • During or after a long summer evening at the campsite drinking beer and saying to virtual strangers, “I love ya, man.”
  • When we have way too much time on our hands (see also [b])
  • When we’re not struggling for survival; that is, when our basic physical needs have been met
  • When we’re tired of struggling for survival and we’re wondering if it’s worth it
  • When we’re living in a dorm and a lot of us are taking Philosophy 203: The Mind-Body Problem (with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain)
  • When we’re depressed; when we doubt our value; when we discover that other people’s perceptions of us are less flattering than our own
  • When, in short, we find that we’re not who we thought we were, which is just as well, because we’re never who we think we are, and we’re just as likely to be as uncertain today as we were yesterday

As in Chapter 3, however, I’ll put forth a few operational definitions so that we’re all speaking the same language, or nearly so. These definitions will be incomplete but useful answers to the questions

What is the self?

Cells are not the building blocks of life, nor are the atoms and molecules that cells can be broken down into. The body is built on invisible abstractions called information and energy–both of which are contained in your DNA. —Deepak Chopra, The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want


In what sense can you know yourself?

Is it possible to “reinvent” yourself? (Reinvent is the buzzword du jour for “adapt” or “change.” None of these words says precisely what I mean. “Adapting” is passive and gradual. “Changing” is too general. “Reinventing” implies that you’re starting from scratch.

(“Participating in your own creation” or “co-creating yourself” are cumbersome but are more to the point—which is that, when things aren’t going well, or when what has worked for you in the past doesn’t work any more, you can either change your approach or rant about the unfairness of everything. “Participating in your own creation” conveys both intention and acceptance of an essential, divinely created self.)

There are tomes dealing with each of these concepts. Take self-knowledge, for example. Most would agree that since the self is never static, it can never be known. By the time you figure out who you are, you’re someone else. *

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

I have only a casual observer’s understanding of Buddhist ideas about the amorphous self—personal identity without boundaries. But Buddhists don’t want everybody to walk around bumping into things all the time. The Buddha himself emerged from his transformative meditation believing in the “Middle Way” between an ascetic life and a worldly one. To learn more about what I call “practical Buddhism,” which I hope is not an oxymoron or an offense to actual Buddhists, I highly recommend the book The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (Harmony Books, 2007).  

Let’s assume for the moment that it’s possible to have a working knowledge of ourselves through information gained from three sources: (a) self-observation, (b) a more-or-less accurate understanding of others’ perceptions of us, and (c) revelation (or, if you prefer, intuition). Now consider the story of my friend Carrie, a widow, who had an electrical problem.

The Buddha

The Buddha

Who is Carrie: Tramp, chemist, pathetic widow?

Several aspects of Carrie’s surface identity are easy to describe: She is

  • a widow
  • a charming woman with a firm handshake and a good memory for names. When she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she means it. She asks friendly questions about your family, your work, your beer-bottle-cap collection. If you rebuild transmissions for a living, Carrie can’t think of anything more fascinating. “Now, how is it that my automatic transmission knows when it’s time to shift into overdrive?” she wants to know.
  • a neatnik. Carrie is one of those people who dust beneath and behind the sofa daily. She can see bacteria and viruses with the naked eye. Hospital sterilization personnel salute her as she walks by. They name autoclaves after her.
  • not an electrician. Carrie doesn’t know an amp from an alligator. She breaks out in hives when she has to change a light bulb.

Thus, when the electrical outlet next to her bed stopped functioning, Carrie called in a professional. Al the electrician would arrive at 8 a.m. the next morning, Carrie was assured.

In the perverse way of such professionals, Al arrived at 7:15. Carrie was discomfited because, though she was dressed and halfway through her second cup of coffee, and though her little house was always spick and span, she hadn’t yet made her bed.

She greeted Al at the door, offered him coffee (which he declined), and ushered him into the bedroom. The electrical outlet was situated near the floor between Carrie’s bed and her nightstand. There were four items neatly arranged on the nightstand: an alarm clock, a lamp, a book, and a jar labeled (in letters that, to Carrie’s horrified eyes, appeared at least two feet tall) “Sexual Enhancement Cream.” As Carrie told me later that day,

Al was here for half an hour, fooling with that electrical outlet, reaching over the table checking this and that, at one point even elbowing the jar aside; and he’s talking to me, explaining electrical things, and I don’t remember a word he said because I was trying so hard to be nonchalant, while this jar, before my very eyes, is inflating to four or five times its original size and also changing from white to neon orange with flashing purple letters, and an actual human voice, like at a carnival, is shouting “Sexual Enhancement Cream! Getcher Sexual Enhancement Cream here, on Carrie’s nightstand, next to her unmade bed!”

Carrie used the word mortified several times. She could have said embarrassed or humiliated. Mortified, really, is overkill, so to speak. Mortify enters the English language from the French mortifier, which in turn comes from the Latin mortificare: “to put someone to death.”

But there is a sense — a poetic sense — in which Carrie was indeed “put to death” during that excruciating half-hour and for a while afterward. Carrie’s “death” is, of course, metaphorical.

The self she knew, the tidy widow, mortified
By nothing but a jar, was stricken, died,
And what was resurrected wasn’t she at all,
But something hard, dispassionate; so small
And wretched, so pathetic, it seemed barely worth
Its rations—water, air, a bit of earth.

During that excruciating half-hour, Carrie saw herself as she imagined Al must have seen her. Since Al had given no sign of having even noticed the jar (“but he couldn’t possibly have missed it!”), her imagination ran wild. In Al’s eyes, she was (a) an oversexed spinster, (b) a brazen hussy, or (c) a purveyor of phone pornography.

I suggested (d) a chemist, and anyway, (e) why did she care what Al thought? But for some reason, in Carrie’s mind, Al’s perception of her had become more important than her own, which, it appeared, was a little on the fuzzy side. “Widowhood” was still a strange and shadowy place for Carrie. Her identity as “Phil’s wife” had been well defined. Without Phil, she wasn’t sure who she was.

_______________ 

* My research on the physics of observing and understanding a system (in this case, the self) when you, the observer, are embedded within the system, came to an abrupt halt when I learned that it would involve “fractals,” which—being statistically self-similar to their substructures and, further, generated by an infinitely recursive process—are clearly wicked, and possibly radioactive as well, and should be avoided at all cost.

 

Lesson 10.1: Assignment
How ‘Conscious’ Are You?

Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth that “nothing you can know about you is you.” We are not our titles or our roles. When my children were still living at home, I was so enmeshed in the role of “motherhood” that I became very ill when my youngest left the nest.

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

Meditation is one way to encounter your “essential” self—the you that isn’t plastered over with ego: roles, ambitions, relationships, other people’s perceptions, even your own measurement of your worth. Tolle calls these things “content… the inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future [as well as] … events.” The more you identify with “the inner space of consciousness”—which, unlike content, is not transient—the less likely you are to be buffeted about by emotions and the freer you are to live poetically.

If you are young and competent, you probably have experienced little tragedy and you are confident of your ability to manage your life. I remember thinking, from time to time, that I “couldn’t bear it” if “X” happened, and I would do everything in my power to prevent it. And then “X” happened anyway (my first big “X” was the death of my mother at age 62), and I suffered, and survived, and grew in compassion. Since then, there have been lots of “X’s,” and there is little left to be afraid of, and much to celebrate.

Your assignment is to answer the following questions in a paragraph or two (about fifty words):

What makes you unhappy or afraid? What do you have or do that, if you couldn’t have it or do it, would seriously disrupt your sense of self?

It’s important to be honest here. This is the first step in “knowing thyself.” I will not ask you to send me this assignment, but it is important to write down your answers and save them for use later in this course.

Next: Chapter 4, Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible