No unsolicited feedback. No cross talk. Patience. Listening. “Respect,” I say. Then I realize it is inherent in most of the items already on our list. What kind of culture do we want to create for our class? By the time everything is written on the white board my spirits have sunk. I think I am just tired. The first night of this self-compassion class there is a lot of material to cover. When we take a short break, I go outside into the warm wind. I lean over from my hips, stretch my spine. I stand and swing my arms, turn from side to side, loosen my neck, my shoulders. I understand I am not just tired. I am discouraged by the list of guidelines for our behavior because I am afraid I won’t be able to honor them. I am afraid I will blurt things out, hurt people’s feelings, break the rules. I am afraid my bad behavior will make the space unsafe. I am ashamed in advance. The teacher said we’ll make mistakes, I tell myself. But her voice was casual, and I know for me it is not casual. It is a big deal. I move near the edge of the balcony and face northwest. I stand still and take in the long stretch of desert before me, the mountains in the distance, the smog. I feel the warm wind on my face, my arms. I let the fear and the shame seep out of me, be swept away in a warm gust of air. Later, I walk home in the dark. I stop on the sidewalk beside a small square block of undeveloped desert. I look up at the moon and Venus in the sky. I hear traffic in the distance. The half moon shows the contrast between the sand and dark lumps of brush. I scan for coyotes. I stand for a long time looking out at the quiet, moonlit field. I feel safe, satiated, washed clean.
I started walking again last Tuesday. I go early in the morning, walk along the creek path. I’m trying to train myself into summer mode, but I’m behind on my sleep. I’m proud of myself, though, and hopeful. I walked almost every day for years before it fell away, and I’ve been wanting to return to it for a long time now. I’m hoping to get up even earlier, be out by the creek bed closer to the first real light. But I want to be kind to myself in this, too, so I am not pushing, and I’m going to play it by ear, let myself go back to sleep when I need to, trust I can ease into this. This morning I wake to the waning moon calling to me in the lightening western sky, birds alive in distant trees. I roll over and go back to sleep. When I walk later, I stop on the footbridge, taking it all in, grateful for this swathe of wildness in the middle of town. I close my eyes, and when I open them I see an animal in the gully. At first I think it might be a deer. I know it must be a coyote, but it seems impossibly thin, and its walk is odd, choppy, un-canine-like. I watch it ramble, climb to the dirt path, slip off into the side streets when a person approaches. I say metta for her without thinking. May you be safe and free from harm. My chest aches. I keep watching for her on my way home. As I walk, I stop worrying. Instead, I dream up the world I want us to live in. I picture a world where we are all safe, where we all have everything we need to thrive. I picture a world where there are systems in place to help. I can make a call. A group of people fan out to find the coyote. They clean her up, feed her. (She was shaking her ears, itchy all over, so skinny it hurts.) I imagine food drops up the canyon for them, once a day, picture animal psychics explaining they can come to eat, to have their wounds looked after. I dream I am one of them. I look into the eyes of “my” coyote. You’re not alone anymore, I say. I outline the routine in my mind, the daily food drops, the tending of wounds. She twitches one ear, stares back at me for a long moment, wary. She wriggles once, all tender hope. Then she settles in to eat.
[Editor’s note: I can’t be certain, but I think I owe this interlude to how The Secret has affected me, to becoming even more aware of when I can just build good pictures, can reach for hope, dream up sweetness in the world.]
The psychic told me to listen to The Secret. I didn’t want to do anything she said, but I didn’t want to just dismiss it, either. What if this was a direction from the universe, the silver lining in her cloud? I looked the book up online. It was nothing I would ever gravitate toward on my own. I wrestled with myself, decided to buy it. I wanted to be open to what the universe might want to tell me. I listened to The Secret while I washed the dishes, when I rode the bus. I listened to it sitting on the train in Union Station. I tried to get past the way it felt like a big, long advertisement and just listen to the words. It’s all about the law of attraction. (So, it isn’t exactly a secret.) But it felt good to be reminded about how responsive the universe is and to hear ingenious ways people draw the things they want. I feel like I need to devote myself more fully to what I’m creating in my life and in the world. I’ve been paying attention for a long time, redirecting my thoughts, banishing my fears. But listening to The Secret made me feel like I’ve been slacking in comparison, and like I want to find a way to truly believe. And because it is so focused on drawing what we want to us without addressing the complex issues that arise, it made me wrestle with how to fit this into my world view, how to reconcile “the secret” with my ethics, with the other ways the universe works. I’m not ready yet to try to put it all in words, but I know this internal grappling has been good for me. And I’m proud of myself for being encouraged by the possibilities instead of making myself feel bad for not being further along in my life, further along in this process. That’s how I’ve reacted in the past. But when I listened to The Secret, I glimpsed a lightness, a way of being in relationship to the world that I’ve always imagined. I tend to be too serious. But this glimpse made me think maybe I can learn to play.
The psychic reading was so disturbing I had to do a cleansing ritual the next day. She came highly recommended, so it took me by surprise. I’m not sure I’ve finished sifting through it in the three weeks since we spoke on the phone. She rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, and part of me wonders if I should have ended it right from the start, if that would have been the best way to take care of myself. But I didn’t. Early in the call I told her I was feeling defensive, but nothing changed. She told me I was intuitive and intelligent. But the rest felt like what I wasn’t doing or what I was doing wrong. The morning after the reading I tried to sort it all out. I’ve always felt validated and encouraged by a psychic reading. This one just made me feel bad. Most of it seemed true, but much of it felt unimportant, or it didn’t resonate, didn’t fully lodge in me. The way it was delivered hurt me. I cried it out. Then I got my rattle and burned some sage and sang a little song. I danced about my trailer, shaking my rattle, waving the burning sage, singing my exorcism. May I be clear of this. May I know what to take forward and what to discard. May I be cleansed of what feels wrong in this. The best I can tell, she was mixing up her own opinions with the information she received. I think much of what she told me was accurate, but I question the depth of it, the value. She insisted my father had a mustache. How could that matter? She told me I was lost, and maybe I am. But I didn’t feel a connection, didn’t feel any compassion. I think somehow she shamed me, but I understand another person, a person wired differently, may not have felt this way. The best parts, I think, were not getting lost in blaming her, and in trusting myself enough to honor my feelings, to reach for healing. And I trusted my instincts enough to take care of myself. When the notes she took during the reading came in the mail, I started to put them on the fridge in case I needed the reminders in the future. But I reached for the wooden matches and burned them in the kitchen sink instead.
Remembering criticism is easy for me, but I’ve never been able to remember a compliment. I wonder if learning to acknowledge my victories will begin to change that dynamic. Maybe as I practice, I’ll build a kind of scaffolding, a structure that lets me store good things about myself. Arinna Weisman encourages us to appreciate our goodness. It goes beyond counting our victories, counting our efforts, our successes. She mentions things like holding the door open for someone, the small wholesome acts we do every day, maybe without thinking. Ian tells me Arinna made a joke about it, too, how if we need to we can even lower the bar (like I did with my incremental progress). She talks about how we probably didn’t steal anything, didn’t kill anyone today. Arinna urges us to feel into those kind or generous impulses of ours. She’s asking us, I think, to seek that fine line between wholesome and unwholesome pride. My unwholesome pride tends to be more knee-jerk, cocky, too quick to puff myself up in an offhand way, even for something I deserve to feel good about. I can feel that wisp of arrogance, that taint. (Sometimes, after, the universe gives me a small smack on the side of my head.) The wholesome pride for me comes in quiet. It eases in slow, this tender pleasure in a thing I’ve done that’s good, like a small papier mache animal or a piece of writing that makes me cry or the small black ant I rescue from the splash of water on the edge of my kitchen sink. Gratitude tends to wash in next, like a gentle swell in a quiet sea, or the treasured feel of warm cement on the first barefoot day in late spring. And a kind marvel, too, that I am allowed each small grace.
In the midst of all my “bad behavior,” all my spewing of anger into the world, I begin to try to acknowledge my “victories,” even the small moments. It feels important to recognize and value the times when I am able to stop my “bad behavior” from escalating. And not just being able to stop myself from erupting but also from sitting stuck in my story about how I’m being wronged. (I can see progress especially on that front. I tend to notice more quickly and turn myself aside from my stories, not dwelling in them, not feeding them.) Last week at my mother’s, I realized I wasn’t as awful as I’ve been before. I had to laugh at myself for that—talk about setting the bar low!—but I figure it’s akin to Larry Yang’s descending intentions that end with, “If I’m not able to do no harm, may I do the least harm possible.” I did less harm this last time, and even though I know things like this aren’t linear, and I may do more harm again in the future, the fact that I did less harm on that one visit still counts. And I want to celebrate the still rare times when I get all the way clear, when I let go enough in the middle of a disagreement to really apologize, like the other day on the phone with my mother. “I’m sorry,” I say. And I sink into it and feel the true softening in me when I say the words, instead of just speaking them in a clean voice while I’m still holding on to it, still churning inside. When I was young, I knew letting go was the secret to everything. But learning how to let go is another story. I get embarrassed to be where I am with this after decades of trying. But I’m still trying. I’m not giving up. So that counts, too.
Monday morning I say prayers for the spirits of Syrians killed by poisonous gas and for the people who love them. I pick dead blossoms from the three big pots of pansies and pull soft, fuzzy, pale green weeds nestled among them. (I’ve decided to do one task each morning toward a clean courtyard.) I break off a pansy bud by mistake. I set it in water, place the small glass beside my bed. The deep purple against the white wood and the soft curve of the tiny stem makes me cry. I cook brown rice, pack pears and peanuts for my snack between writing group and sangha. I still want to do my sitting practice and a tiny bit of yoga before I have to leave, so I keep my writing short. I cry more often these days, small things like the bread and butter or the pansy life stopped short. Big things like dead bodies in Syria, like being afraid about my health or feeling like a failure. But they are brief, quick moments only, and I tend to be kind to myself when they arise. I count to 29 to blend my garlic lemon drink for my liver, and I remember seeing Amma in the grocery store last night, how much better she looked. The memory makes me glad for her, grateful for her Tibetan doctor. And in the same breath, still counting seconds while the blender fills the room with its loud machine noise, I recognize again the part of me who still believes nothing I do will ever be enough. The tears come, but so does a deep certainty that I am healing (louder than that other voice? louder than the blender?) and a wash of dearness for myself and my good efforts.